15 LGBTI Priorities for ALP National Conference 2015

There are now less than 12 months left until the next Australian Labor Party National Conference. To be held in Melbourne next July 24 to 26, National Conference is still the supreme decision-making body of the (traditionally) centre-left major party of Australian politics. National Conference is therefore the main opportunity to secure ‘progressive’ change in ALP policies during this term of Parliament, including on those issues affecting the LGBTI community.

And the first National Conference held after a loss of Government, as this one will be, offers more chance than most to help ‘reset’ the direction of the Australian Labor Party, to reject some of the worst policies of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government (including the processing and resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality) and to propose new, better policies which promote the fundamental equality of LGBTI Australians.

Which means that now is the time for LGBTI activists and advocates to be considering what our priorities should be for next year’s National Conference, and to start the process of lobbying (whether from inside or outside the party) to help achieve them.

The following is my list of priorities for LGBTI reform to the Labor Party platform. It is not comprehensive – I’m sure other people will have slightly different priorities, and I welcome feedback, particularly on issues which I have (either consciously or unconsciously) excluded. But I thought I would share this list to ‘kick off’ the debate, and help ensure we start planning our actions towards ALP National Conference 2015.

1. Remove religious exemptions from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984

One of the most important reforms of the previous Labor Government was the introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections under Commonwealth law for the first time. The passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, albeit some 38 years after the Racial Discrimination Act and 29 years since the passage of the original Sex Discrimination Act, was indeed a historic achievement.

However, it was also a fundamentally flawed one, because it included wide-ranging exemptions allowing religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and people accessing services, on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

These exemptions are a blight on the Sex Discrimination Act and will undermine lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality for as long as they exist. It is essential that ALP National Conference adopts a policy of removing religious exemptions from Commonwealth law, outside of the appointment of ministers of religion, and the conduct of religious ceremonies (ie those exemptions genuinely necessary for the exercise of religious freedom, not those which some religious organisations wish to use simply to discriminate against LGBT people across multiple areas of public life).

And while many may see this goal as unachievable, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 itself showed that it is indeed possible. By rejecting religious exemptions with respect to intersex status, and simultaneously ensuring that religious exemptions do not apply to LGBT people accessing aged care services, the last Parliament demonstrated that religious exemptions are not inviolable. It’s time to persuade the majority of delegates to next year’s National Conference to agree.

For more on this subject, see The Last Major Battle for Gay & Lesbian Equality Won’t be About Marriage <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/26/the-last-major-battle-for-gay-lesbian-legal-equality-in-australia-wont-be-about-marriage/

2. Introduce Commonwealth LGBTI anti-vilification protections

One of the major social policy debates in the 1st half of 2014 concerned Attorney-General George Brandis’ exposure draft Bill seeking to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a move that would have essentially gutted racial anti-vilification protections under Commonwealth law.

Fortunately, unlike many other social and economic ‘reforms’ put forward by the Abbott regime in its first 12 months in office, this move was soundly rejected, with a significant public backlash, as well as a strong pushback by the Australian Labor Party.

Well, now that racial anti-vilification protections have been saved, it’s time for the ALP to support the introduction of Commonwealth anti-vilification protections for LGBTI Australians.

No-one can seriously argue that homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia aren’t real, and substantial, problems in modern public life. We, as LGBTI Australians, deserve the same protections from vilification as other groups receive from different kinds of abuse. Nothing more and nothing less.

For more on this subject, see Don’t Limit Racial Vilification Protections, Introduce Vilification Protections for LGBTI Australians Instead

3. Implement the recommendations of the Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia

Another key development during the last term of Parliament was the Senate’s inquiry into the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people (to see the full report, click here: <http://www.aph.gov.au/~/media/Committees/Senate/committee/clac_ctte/involuntary_sterilisation/second_report/report.ashx and to see my submission to that inquiry, click here: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/01/submission-to-involuntary-and-coerced-sterilisation-senate-inquiry/ ).

These practices, which shamefully continue today, are some of the most serious human rights violations, not just of LGBTI Australians, but of any person in contemporary Australia.

While the recommendations of the Senate inquiry are by no means comprehensive, their implementation would be a good start towards ensuring that intersex children are no longer subjected to unnecessary and unjustified ‘medical procedures’, and certainly not before they are in a position to either grant, or withhold, consent.

A related reform would be to support the removal of the exemption from policy frameworks on Female Genital Mutilation which permit such surgical interventions on intersex girls for rationales that include cultural issues such as marriage opportunities. A principle of non-discrimination should apply in all circumstances. For more information on this see OII Australia’s third submission to the Senate Inquiry, here: <http://oii.org.au/22613/third-submission-senate-inquiry-sterilisation/

4. Remove all out-of-pocket costs for trans* surgeries

The ability of people to access whatever medical support they require to affirm their gender identity isn’t just fundamental to their mental and physical health, it is a fundamental human right. As such, access to trans* surgeries and related medical procedures should not be restricted by the capacity to pay, but instead should be fully publicly subsidised through Medicare.

The Shorten Labor Opposition has been strong in standing up against the Abbott Government’s moves towards a US-style ‘user pays’ health system in Australia. They should be equally firm in asserting the right to full public funding of trans*-related medical expenses, including ensuring no out-of-pocket expenses for trans* surgeries.

5. Training for health professionals on trans*, gender diverse & intersex issues

The last two priorities – intersex sterilisation and trans* medical expenses – demonstrate the ongoing influence of health professionals in the lives of trans*, gender diverse and intersex people. That influence has the potential to be positive, but unfortunately in too many situations can and does directly lead to harm, often of a serious and/or permanent nature.

One of the key ways to overcome these negative impacts is to increase the basic knowledge of health professionals about trans*, gender diverse and intersex issues through introductory, and ongoing, training (which could also be used to increase knowledge about the health needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual people at the same time – although arguably, and leaving people like Dr David Van Gend and Philip Pocock aside, sexual orientation is treated marginally better than gender identity and intersex status by health professionals).

Hopefully by addressing the sometimes woeful level of (mis)understanding of trans*, gender diverse and intersex issues by health professionals we can go some way to changing some of the health indicators where trans*, gender diverse and intersex (and also lesbian, gay and bisexual) individuals ‘underperform’ compared to other Australians.

6. Introduce a genuinely-inclusive national Health & Physical Education curriculum

The draft national Health & Physical Education curriculum was developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA) during 2012 and 2013, primarily while Peter Garrett was Education Minister – although briefly under the responsibility of then Minister Bill Shorten, too.

Unfortunately, even before the incoming Education Minister Christopher Pyne got his hands on it, the draft HPE curriculum was unambiguously a dud. It failed to be inclusive of LGBTI students and content – it doesn’t use the words lesbian, gay or bisexual once – and also failed to ensure that all schools would provide comprehensive sexual health education to students (scandalously, it doesn’t even refer to HIV or other blood borne viruses at all in the entire document).

And after Minister Pyne delegated the review of the overall national curriculum, including HPE, to noted homophobe Kevin Donnelly (alongside Ken Wiltshire), the version which will ultimately be adopted sometime later this term is likely to be even worse, especially in terms of its LGBTI-inclusiveness (or lack thereof).

This outcome will be a huge, and sadly bipartisan, missed opportunity, to improve the lives of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people around the country.

The Labor Party should accept its share of responsibility for this – and take action at the 2015 National Conference to remedy it, by including a commitment in the party’s platform to introduce a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive national Health & Physical Education curriculum.

To see my letter to Minister Pyne calling for Kevin Donnelly to be sacked from the Students First Review, click here: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/01/11/letter-to-minister-pyne-re-health-physical-education-curriculum-and-appointment-of-mr-kevin-donnelly/ and a copy of my submission to the review of the national curriculum can be found here: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/

Will Bill Shorten support full LGBTI equality at ALP National Conference 2015?

Will Bill Shorten support full LGBTI equality at ALP National Conference 2015?

7. Provide long-term commitment to support Safe Schools

On the other hand, one of the best things which the Labor Government did with respect to LGBTI students and young people in its last term in office was to provide a 3-year, $8 million grant to the Foundation for Young Australians to support the national roll-out of the Victorian Safe Schools Coalition program.
Perhaps surprisingly, this initiative has (so far) not been cut by the Abbott Government, and the NSW launch of Safe Schools was held at the end of July 2014, with other states to follow.

With the need for multiple programs to address the ongoing problems of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in our schools, which we know takes a terrible, and often tragic, toll in terms of poorer mental health outcomes, I would like to see a clear commitment in the ALP platform to support the Safe Schools program on an ongoing basis into the future.

8. Provide ongoing funding for LGBTI service delivery organisations

The last Labor Government also provided a range of other important grants supporting LGBTI service delivery, including funding for the National LGBTI Health Alliance with respect to developing the aged care and ageing strategy, and $3.3 million over 2 years to the QLife counselling service, commencing July 2013.

Obviously, these issues – LGBTI aged care and ageing requirements, and the need for dedicated LGBTI counselling services – are not going away anytime soon. As such, the national platform should explicitly support the provision of ongoing funding to LGBTI service delivery organisations, including the National LGBTI Health Alliance and also other peak trans*, intersex, lesbian, gay and bisexual service delivery organisations, to ensure these types of programs aren’t simply ad hoc, disappearing after two or three years, but become a permanent part of the health and community services sector.

9. Appoint a Spokesperson for Equality

The first Commonwealth (Minister or) Assistant Minister for Women was appointed by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1976, and it has been a permanent portfolio at federal level (in some shape or form) since it was reintroduced by Prime Minister Hawke in 1983.

However, there has never been a corresponding portfolio for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and issues – and I would argue it is long overdue. The Victorian Opposition Leader, Daniel Andrews, showed the way in May 2013 by appointing Martin Foley as the Victorian Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Equality, the first position of its kind in the country.

It’s time that the federal Labor Party did the same – and, given Bill Shorten did not create an equality portfolio when he was elected leader late last year, there is no reason why the 2015 National Conference shouldn’t create one for him.

Of course, putting LGBTI policies on a sustainable footing takes more than simply appointing one spokesperson within caucus. If elected, the ALP should also introduce LGBTI ministerial advisory bodies, either reporting directly to the Equality Minister/Assistant Minister, or separate bodies advising key portfolios which affect the LGBTI community (including Health, Education and Attorney-General’s). This is essential to help ensure the voice of the LGBTI is heard, loud and clear, by the government.

10. Support anti-homophobia, -biphobia, -transphobia and -intersexphobia campaigns and initiatives

Law reforms aimed at combatting the suite of ‘phobias’, such as the removal of religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act, and introducing LGBTI anti-vilification protections, are absolutely essential, but are not in and of themselves enough to address the problems of anti-LGBTI discrimination in society.

That requires a more co-ordinated and sustained effort, including support for public education campaigns, like the Victorian Government’s support for the No To Homophobia initiative. There is no reason why a similar, broad-based national campaign should not be funded.

It also means supporting the efforts of organisations like the Australian Human Rights Commission in addressing discrimination outside specific complaints (such as their work with sporting groups on lesbian, gay and bisexual discrimination and, hopefully sometime in the near future, on anti-trans* and -intersex prejudice on the playing field, too).

Speaking of the AHRC, it is simply unacceptable in 2014 for there not to be a dedicated, full-time LGBTI commissioner. The challenges presented by LGBTI discrimination are complex and unique, and should not be subsumed within another policy area – and certainly not be seen as a part-time job of the so-called ‘Freedom Commissioner’, who only last year was arguing the LGBTI people should not be protected from discrimination under the law, unless that discrimination was by Government. ALP National Conference 2015 should support a real, full-time LGBTI commissioner at the Human Rights Commission.

11. Make support for LGBTI human rights an explicit goal of Australia’s foreign policy

One of the more pleasing political developments in recent years has been the growth in bipartisan support for Australian engagement to support LGBTI human rights internationally.

Of course, with roughly 80 countries criminalising homosexuality – and more than half of those countries members of the Commonwealth – there is plenty of scope for Australia to do more, and specifically to support any and all moves towards decriminalisation, as well as broader legal and cultural acceptance of diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Given the scale of this challenge, I believe the ALP should adopt support for LGBTI human rights as an explicit priority of international engagement and foreign policy in the 2015 National Platform.

12. Introduce a binding vote for ALP MPs on marriage equality

This is the issue which will dominate discussion, at least from an LGBTI perspective (and possibly in terms of media coverage as well), ahead of next year’s national conference. I have listed it at number 12, not because I think it is any more or less important than the other issues included, but to highlight the fact that there are actually other important topics that require our attention prior to next July’s gathering.

Having said that, readers of my blog would be aware that this is something that I feel passionately about, having already written a lengthy post about why #ItsTimeToBind for Australian Labor on marriage equality (see: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/ ).

In short, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever why a collectivist party, which binds on nearly all policy issues, should make an exception to allow some of its MPs to vote against the fundamental equality of all couples. That is simply legitimising prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, it is wrong, and it must end.

13. Abolish the National School Chaplaincy Program

This issue, and the next, are not explicitly (or at least not exclusively) LGBTI policy issues. But they are issues which do have an impact, and a potentially disproportionate impact at that, on the LGBTI community.

In the case of the National School Chaplaincy Program, not only is it a gross waste of money (especially in a supposedly ‘tight’ fiscal environment), as well as a completely unjustified breach of the separation of church and state, it is also a program which potentially exposes thousands of young LGBTI students to the prejudices of religious fundamentalists who are keen to tell them that they are wrong for simply being who they are.

There have already been multiple reports of such abuse (including those outlined in one of Senator Louise Pratt’s final speeches in the Senate – see here for a transcript <http://thatsmyphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/senator-louise-pratt-on-school-chaplaincy/ ) and it would be unsurprising, to say the least, if they were simply the tip of the iceberg, given the hate-driven ideology of some groups involved in religious programs and activities in schools around the country.

Overall, the main reasons to abolish the National School Chaplaincy Program aren’t necessarily LGBTI-related (see my post Dear Joe Hockey, $245million for Schools Chaplains? You Cannot Be Serious <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/05/15/dear-joe-hockey-245-million-for-school-chaplains-you-cannot-be-serious/ ). But the LGBTI community still has an undeniable interest in supporting a platform change so that the ALP commits to abolishing the scheme, in its entirety, when it returns to office.

14. End the offshore processing & resettlement of refugees

As with chaplaincy, this is not an exclusively LGBTI policy issue – after all, the fact that Australia ‘exports’ asylum-seekers who arrive by boat, imprisoning them for several years in either Nauru or Papua New Guinea (tragically it seems at the risk of being killed, by violence or by criminal negligence), with the aim of ‘resettlement’ in those same countries despite their comparative lack of resources, is wrong no matter what the sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status of the person(s) involved.

But the fact that LGBTI refugees are being placed at increased risk, given both Nauru and PNG retain colonial (including Australian colonial) era laws criminalising homosexuality, adds both an extra layer of oppression, as well as additional motivation for LGBTI advocates and activists to call for the end of offshore processing and resettlement – something that, depressingly, was reintroduced by the last Labor Government. It’s up to delegates at the 2015 National Conference to correct this appalling mistake.

For more on this issue, see my letter to Minister Scott Morrison, calling for an end to this situation (including his Department’s exceptionally disappointing response: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/02/letter-to-scott-morrison-about-treatment-of-lgbti-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-sent-to-manus-island-png/ ) as well as my piece 13 Highs & Lows of 2013: No 1. Australia sends LGBTI refugees to countries which criminalise homosexuality (<http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/27/no-1-australia-sends-lgbti-refugees-to-countries-which-criminalise-homosexuality/ ).

15. Support the pre-selection of openly-LGBTI candidates for winnable seats

This issue potentially can’t wait until National Conference 2015, with some jurisdictions having already commenced the pre-selection process for the next federal election, due in September 2016. However, if nothing is done on this between now and next July then I believe National Conference should step in.

As I have written previously, there has still never been an openly LGBTI MP in the Australian House of Representatives (see: <
http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/11/16/lgbti-voices-absent-from-the-chamber/ ), leaving us well behind our counterparts in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and even the US.

From an ALP point of view, while former Cabinet Minister Senator Penny Wong continues to blaze a trail (and is now Leader of the Opposition in the Senate), LGBTI-community representation has actually halved this year, with the homophobe Joe Bullock replacing Louise Pratt at April’s WA election re-run.

The issue of LGBTI under-representation in Parliament was actually identified as a priority to be addressed by Bill Shorten while he was campaigning for the Labor leadership in September and October 2013. While his possible solution was controversial (he suggested that quotas be considered, in a similar way to affirmative action rules for women), he was right to highlight the lack of diversity in caucus as a long-term problem to be overcome (noting of course that it also took until 2013 for Labor to elect an Aboriginal MP in either House).

Well, history shows he won that ballot, and it is now almost 12 months later, with pre-selections commencing – so it’s time for Opposition Leader Shorten to follow through on his interest in this issue and put forward his ideas on how the ALP can overcome any structural barriers that it has that has meant no openly LGBTI candidate has ever been pre-selected for a winnable seat.

If he does not, if the pre-selection process continues as normal with LGBTI candidates continuing to be excluded, and Mr Shorten does not put forward any concrete proposals for increasing LGBTI representation inside the ALP, then I think we should be actively considering quotas, or other potential ideas to increase LGBTI representation in the Commonwealth Parliament, as amendments to the Party’s Rules at next year’s conference.

So, there you have it, my list of 15 LGBTI policy priorities for next year’s ALP National Conference. As you can see, it’s not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination. In particular, I have not included nationally-consistent, best practice birth certificate reforms (affecting both trans* and intersex individuals, in different ways), in part because, being honest, I do not fully understand the issues involved, and in part because some activists may prefer to pursue this at state level (which currently has constitutional power), rather than federally. But I very much welcome feedback on what possible platform amendments in that area would look like (hint: feel free to leave a comment below).

Of course, this list will nevertheless still be criticised by some within the ALP – either because they see it as somehow too radical, or because they would prefer to adopt a ‘small target’ strategy ahead of the next election. And of course it would attract negative comments from those opposed to any form of LGBTI equality.

But I make no apologies for the fact that we should be pursuing what these critics might attack as a ‘gay agenda’ – because there is nothing wrong with pursuing an agenda of inclusivity and equality. None of the reforms above are unnecessary, or unjustified. Each would improve the lives of LGBTI people.

And all of them should be adopted by a Party that, even if only occasionally, still likes to use the word progressive to describe itself. It’s up to us to make sure that as many of these policies are adopted as possible at next year’s National Conference. It’s time to make sure the ALP stands up for substantive LGBTI equality.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #1: Because I can’t marry the man I love

The number one reason why I hate marriage inequality in Australia is because it means that I cannot marry the man who I love.

Me (on the left) and Steven (aka the handsome guy with the sunnies).

Me (on the left) and Steven (aka the handsome guy with the sunnies).

I was half-tempted to leave it at that because, really, what more do I need to say?

There can be few things more beautiful than the desire to celebrate the love that you have for your partner, in front of your family and friends. I want to experience that with Steve, the person I care about most in the world, and who brings me more happiness than I ever thought possible.

At the same time, there can be few things uglier than a Government intervening to tell you “No”, you cannot experience that, simply because of your sexual orientation (or, for others, gender identity or intersex status). Especially when there is absolutely no legitimate reason why the Marriage Act 1961 should discriminate against LGBTI-inclusive couples, something that is incredibly frustrating, to Steve and me, and to the thousands of other Australian couples in the same situation.

Obviously, the issue of marriage equality is very personal for all of the people that it directly affects. And, in that, I am no different. It does affect me personally and, as the people closest in my life can attest (and as this countdown has made exceptionally clear) I take its denial very personally.

How could I not? When you celebrate wedding after wedding, of your sister, and your brother, and your cousins, and your partner’s extended family, and your friends and his friends as well, and you just want to do the same, yet you cannot because 139 Senators and Members of the House of Representatives back in September 2012 decided that you are ‘unworthy’ simply because you’re gay, well, how could that not feel like a knife right through your heart?

In fact, there are very few contemporary public policy issues for which the old maxim – that the personal is political – could be more accurate. The recognition of our relationships is obviously immensely personal, and it is impossible to deny that whether they are recognised or not, or recognised but with a lesser value than cisgender heterosexual relationships, is inherently political.

That particular saying works the other way, too. The position that each of our parliamentarians adopts on this political issue reflects something profound about who they are as a person as well.

And I’m not just talking about the Cory Bernardis or Helen Polleys of this world, either – Senators who thought it appropriate to link the prospect of marriage equality with bestiality and the Stolen Generation, respectively – although their parliamentary speeches certainly revealed their utter contempt for LGBTI Australians.

I am talking about the MPs who might not say anything ‘overtly’ homophobic during Parliamentary debates about marriage, but who cast their vote against equality nonetheless. In doing so, they indicate that they choose discrimination and inequality over love and inclusion. They stand up against the idea that all Australians deserve equal treatment under the law, instead supporting the notion that some people are ‘more equal’ than others.

Those who vote against marriage equality devalue our relationships, telling us that they are less worthy of recognition than those of other people. And they devalue us as individuals too, subtly (or in some cases, not so subtly) sending the signal that we are less than full citizens of our own country. Even if they do not say the words, their position reveals, loud and clear, that they believe LGBTI people are – and should be – second class.

At its most personal, an MP who votes against marriage equality is saying that they themselves are more deserving of certain rights, that their own relationships are more worthy of recognition, that they as individuals are simply better than LGBTI Australians.

To them I say, “How dare you”. How dare you suggest that, because I am gay and you are heterosexual, you are more deserving of certain rights than I am. And how dare you deny us the rights that you currently enjoy (whether you choose to exercise them or not) simply because we are in a same-sex relationship and you are not.

The love that Steve and I share is not better or worse, more valuable or less valuable, or more deserving or less deserving, than the love between cisgender heterosexual couples. It’s all just love. The law should not make a distinction between the love that Steve and I have for each other, and that between my sister and her husband, or my brother and his wife.

Sadly, because of the amendments made under the Howard Government in August 2004, and the failure of our MPs since then to remedy this discrimination, the law does make such a distinction.

Today, Wednesday 13 August 2014, those amendments, that legal distinction, this ongoing and unjustified discrimination against LGBTI Australians, ‘celebrates’ its own ten year anniversary.

The traditional gift for a ten-year wedding anniversary is tin. I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not wanting to buy anything special to mark the occasion.

What I will do, what I feel compelled to do on this day, is say to all of those MPs who voted against equality in 2004, and continue to do so now, you truly are the tin men and tin women of Australian politics. You have forgotten that you have hearts, or, at the very least, you have forgotten how to use them. Indeed, it seems you have forgotten what hearts are even there for.

Well, now is the time to rediscover their purpose. And now is also the time to rediscover your purpose as our elected representatives – that it is your responsibility to act for the betterment of Australia, and the welfare of its people, all of its people, not just the cisgender heterosexual ones.

On this, the 10th anniversary of the ban, it’s time to support marriage equality, and in so doing to support the full and equal citizenship of all Australians, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. If you do, if you finally agree to pass marriage equality, then you should rest assured that nothing bad will happen. The sky will not fall in. There will be no negative consequences whatsoever.

The only outcome will be overwhelmingly positive. Thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of couples will finally be able to express their love and commitment in front of their family and friends. Couples like Steve and me. We are ready and waiting to say those two small words to each other, “I do”. We just need you to say two other words first, “You can.”

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #2: Because we’ve been waiting so damn long

The ten year anniversary of Australia’s ban on marriage equality is now only a few days away. Unfortunately, the long-awaited repeal of the ban is still some time off.

The best-case scenario: Commonwealth Parliament passes marriage equality in 2015. A more realistic outcome is that equal marriage is finally introduced sometime during the next term of Parliament (2016-2019). And there is still a small but real chance that marriage equality is two (or more) terms away, meaning it could be delayed here until the 2020s.

No matter when it (eventually) happens, there will be thousands upon thousands of Australian LGBTI-inclusive couples who have been waiting, and waiting, and then waiting some more, simply to exercise the same rights that our cisgender heterosexual counterparts enjoy without question. And, to me at least, the waiting itself has become both seemingly interminable, and insufferable.

Australian Marriage Equality has effectively tapped into that sentiment with one of its main campaigns of 2014, with stories and images of couples with the ‘We’re Waiting’ message. This campaign is both an accurate reflection of the feelings of many within the LGBTI community, and a reminder to decision-makers that this policy choice is not abstract, but affects ‘real people’ in all-too-real ways.

And it is the human element of the ongoing ban, the costs of being forced to wait, that I want to concentrate on here. Because the delay of being able to get married, for years or even decades, carries with it very real consequences for the couples involved.

The first consequence is that it directly affects the ability of couples to celebrate their wedding with all of the family members and friends who they would like to be there for their special day. For those couples that do not choose to travel overseas (which itself obviously limits who is able to attend), by forcing LGBTI-inclusive couples to wait to marry within Australia, the Parliament is effectively interfering with the ‘guest list’ of many couples.

From Steve and my perspective, as I have written before, we are both very conscious of the fact that, the longer the ban on marriage equality goes on, the less and less likely it is we will be able to have our remaining grandmothers there for the occasion (either for reasons of ill-health, or worse). They certainly could have been there had we been married two or three years ago (ie after an engagement of 12 or 24 months), but even today it is becoming doubtful.

I often imagine how ‘traditional marriage’ or ‘family values’ or even ‘small government’ campaigners would react if the Commonwealth Parliament intervened to tell them who they could, or could not, invite to their wedding. I suspect they would probably have a pretty spectacular hissy fit. And yet that is exactly what they are seeking to impose on us – stealing from us our ability to celebrate our weddings with who we choose.

The second consequence is another ‘theft’, but the effects of it won’t become apparent for most of us for many years, long after the ban on marriage equality is lifted. And that is they are stealing from us future ‘significant’ wedding anniversaries. Because, the longer our entry to marriage is delayed, the less likely it is that current LGBTI-inclusive couples will reach our 60th, 50th or even 40th or 30th wedding anniversaries.

Now, to some that might seem like a petty argument. After all, we will still have ‘anniversaries’ for the significant events of our relationships (for example, today is the 6th anniversary of when Steve and I first met, and we will certainly be celebrating the occasion).

But it is impossible to deny that significant cultural value is still placed on long-lasting marriages, perhaps even an increasing value when so many marriages do not last that long (for whatever reason). How many of us experience an ‘awww, that’s sweet’ moment when we see the 60th or 50th wedding anniversaries of older couples, either family members or friends, or even reported on the news?

Well, far fewer of our relationships will reach those moments in the decades to come because of the actions of Commonwealth parliamentarians in 2004, 2012 and today. Once again, imagine the outcry from ‘traditional marriage’ (aka anti-LGBTI equality) campaigners if the Government were to intervene to effectively steal those anniversaries from them. They need to be reminded that it is just as unacceptable when it is done to LGBTI Australians.

However, it is the third consequence, yet another theft, which is the most offensive, and most objectionable. And that is that there are countless couples who wanted to marry but where one or both have died since the original ban on equality was introduced in 2004, and many more who will continue to die before being able to wed while this homophobic discrimination remains in place.

These are couples who have had the right to marry stolen from them, now and for all time, merely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. For most, they grew up at a time when homosexuality was criminalised, and when trans* and intersex people were ‘invisibilised’ and subject to the worst forms of abuse (even worse than today), but who have then suffered one final indignity at the hands of the Australian Government – the denial of the equal recognition of their relationships during their lifetimes.

The worst thing, the most frustrating part, about this entire situation is that everyone knows marriage equality is inevitable. I know it. You know it. Julia Gillard knew it. Tony Abbott must know. In fact, all MPs, certainly since 2011 or 2012, if not before, must have recognised that marriage equality will eventually be passed in Australia, and that the only remaining question is whether that happens now, or in five or even ten years time.

And, while there is absolutely nothing that is ‘gained’ from this delay, as I have shown above there is plenty that is lost, not least of which is the undeniable loss of those couples who were never able, and will never be able, to wed.

Which makes the ongoing failure of Commonwealth Parliamentarians to pass marriage equality one of the most petty and vindictive acts – or omissions – in recent political history.

It is, frankly, unforgiveable that our MPs are not only stubbornly opposing what is right, and standing firm against the overwhelming tide of history and progress, they are rejecting the rights of Australian couples, including members of their own electorates, when they know in their hearts that all they are doing is delaying the inevitable, and making those couples pay the cost in the meantime.

This outcome, the price that is being paid by couples around the country because of this interminable ‘wait’, is definitely one of the things I hate most about marriage inequality.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #3: Because it makes attending weddings a bittersweet experience

Weddings are supposed to be joyous occasions, a celebration of two people coming together to express their love and commitment to each other in front of their family members and friends. If ever an event was meant to provoke happiness – pure, unambiguous happiness – surely a wedding would be it.

But, when I go to weddings I cannot help but find them to be bittersweet. The joy of the ceremony, and my happiness for the couple involved, is tempered by sadness at the knowledge that I, and the man who I love, currently cannot participate in the exact same ritual, solely because of our sexual orientation.

Obviously, the main source of this frustration is the legislative ban on marriage equality, introduced by the Howard Liberal-National Government in 2004 (an event which itself celebrates its ‘tin’ anniversary next week), and perpetuated by his successors including Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

However, this hurt and anger is compounded by the section of the wedding ceremony where the celebrant is compelled to read out the following:

“I am duly authorised by law to solemnise marriages according to law. Before you are joined in marriage in my presence and in the presence of these witnesses, I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter.

Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” (emphasis added).

Talk about rubbing salt into the wound. Section 46(1) of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) makes it clear that these words must be read out by the celebrant (although, bizarrely enough, only by civil celebrants – ministers of religion for a recognised denomination are exempted from this requirement).

The Guidelines on the Marriage Act 1961 for Marriage Celebrants also confirm that, while there is some scope to make minor variations to the first two sentences above, there is no scope to change the third. Specifically:

• “do not replace ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with ‘people’ or ‘persons’. This could signify the marriage of two people of the same sex which is specifically excluded by the definition.
• do not change the first part of the sentence to read: “Marriage as most of us understand it is…” (from page 75 of the Guidelines).

It is appalling that there is this level of government interference into something so personal, on what is supposed to be a special, some might say unique, day for the couple involved (and especially galling that it is supported by Australian conservatives who like to proclaim their support for ‘small government’).

It is even more appalling that LGBTI Australians, and indeed all people who support equality irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, must sit through this recitation each and every time they simply wish to attend the wedding of their family members or friends.

I must admit that, at the last few weddings I have been to, this recitation, together with the fact that – more than four years into Steve and my engagement – there is still so little sign we will be able to marry in our own country any time soon, really got me down.

At one of these receptions, I recall looking up at my fiancé and, from the expression on his face, seeing that he felt exactly the same way at exactly the same moment. I don’t know if that makes it better or worse – to feel comfort in the fact that someone so close shares that burden with you, or to feel anger that the government makes the person who you care about most in the world experience pain. Actually, that’s not true, it’s definitely the latter.

And I’m sure that we’re not the only LGBTI-inclusive couple, or LGBTI individuals, who experience these emotions at weddings, who are hurt by the continuing rejection of our own love as equal, and who resent, bitterly at times, that the ban on marriage equality has transformed joyous occasions into bittersweet affairs.

This is not to say the ban doesn’t affect cisgender heterosexual people too, it does. It has become increasingly common for couples who are getting married and who value their LGBTI family members and friends, or who simply reject the discrimination against LGBTI relationships contained in the Marriage Act 1961, to either say themselves, or have their celebrant say, that they support the right of all couples to marry.

In fact, this ‘disclaimer’, usually read out before the abhorrent words of section 46(1), has become so commonplace that it has almost become modern wedding etiquette itself.

And it is truly lovely that so many people have chosen to do so. On a day that is marked by symbolism, expressing their disagreement with the prejudice of Australia’s marriage laws is an important symbolic gesture, and one that does make things that little bit easier (for this LGBTI Australian at least).

But, let’s face it, they shouldn’t have to. On their wedding day, cisgender heterosexual couples shouldn’t have to be making capital ‘P’ political statements, simply because successive Australian Governments have been homophobic in determining who can, and cannot, marry. After all, there is enough small ‘p’ politics at weddings – who is in the wedding party, who is invited/not invited, who sits where – already.

Of course, the only way to fix this is for Australia to finally catch up to the progressive world by introducing domestic marriage equality, thereby allowing couples like Steve and me to get married, and cisgender heterosexual couples to go back to arguing about what song should be the wedding waltz (come to think of it, with our music tastes I’m pretty sure Steve and I might ‘disagree’ about that too).

Until then, the fact that the ban on marriage equality makes attending weddings a bittersweet experience is definitely one of the things that I hate most about marriage inequality.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #4: Because Julia Gillard let me – and the LGBTI community – down

I don’t cry much. Well, that’s not entirely true. I cry – a lot – at emotionally manipulative movies (and it doesn’t really matter whether they’re good, bad or Sandra Bullock). But outside a darkened cinema I can count on two hands the number of times I have cried over the past twenty years. And almost never in front of other people.

So why then did I find myself gently sobbing, for about 15 minutes, in the middle of a large crowd in Sydney’s Hyde Park, on the afternoon of Saturday December 3rd, 2011? It wasn’t because it was almost the end of what had been an extremely long year professionally, nor was it because I had only had about two hours sleep (although both factors certainly didn’t help).

No, I found myself crying in public, in a way that I genuinely had very little control over, because that was the moment that I knew that, already almost two years into my engagement to Steve, it was going to be several more years before we would be able to walk down the aisle, in our own country and surrounded by our family and friends.

December 3rd was the day the 2011 ALP National Conference decided that, as well as making support for marriage equality a part of the Party’s platform, it would fundamentally undermine that position by allowing any Labor Party member of parliament to vote against the equal right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people to get married. And with that decision they destroyed the prospects of marriage equality passing in that term, and made it very difficult in the following term too.

What has happened since – the defeat of Marriage Amendment Bills in September 2012, the defeat of the ALP Government in 2013, and the lack of priority and support for this issue by the incoming Abbott Liberal-National Government in its first term – were all entirely foreseeable on that early summer’s day.

Sitting here typing, more than two and a half years since that National Conference vote and now more than four and a half years into Steve and my engagement – with who knows how many more left – and the hurt and anger which I felt on that day is still with me, often not very far from the surface.

I have learnt to channel that disappointment to provide even more energy and impetus to my advocacy and activism for LGBTI rights, for young LGBTI people who need safe schools and an inclusive curriculum, for LGBTI refugees fleeing persecution but who Australia locks up and resettles in countries which criminalise homosexuality, and of course for marriage equality itself.

But something which we must also do is to hold to account those people who are responsible for the ongoing unjustified and, let’s face it, homophobic, bi-phobic, trans-phobic and intersex-phobic discrimination against LGBTI people in the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961.

Almost 10 years into the ban on equal marriage and there is plenty of ‘accountability’, or blame, to go around. From John Howard, whose Coalition Government introduced the ban in 2004, to Mark Latham, who ensured the then Labor Opposition rolled over without anything resembling a fight, to all the conservative cheerleaders and News Ltd columnists (tautology, I know) who have opposed progress since then, to the Australian Christian Lobby whose entire existence appears dedicated to halting LGBTI rights, to Joe de Bruyn who has sabotaged change within the ALP, his equivalents who have done the same in the Liberal and National Parties, the 98 members of the House of Representatives and 41 Senators who voted against LGBTI equality in parliament in September 2012, and of course current Prime Minister Tony Abbott who remains implacably opposed to marriage equality – all must accept their share of responsibility for the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians continue to be 2nd class citizens under the law.

But there is one person I blame above all else, one person who I believe should assume the largest share of responsibility for the fact that Steve and I can still not get married, one person whose actions had the most potential to change that situation for the better, but who instead chose to do exactly the wrong thing, at exactly the wrong time: former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

On 15 November 2011, in the lead-up to that critical National Conference, Gillard announced her views in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In that article, she chose to support a continued ban on marriage equality in the ALP platform, while also favouring a conscience vote, to be implemented by a rule change to make whatever policy position was ultimately adopted by Conference non-binding on MPs.

In doing so, Gillard chose what was the worst possible option, the one which would do the most damage to the short- and medium-term prospects of marriage equality in Australia.

That is not an over-statement. In practice, there were five main positions which Gillard could have chosen:

• Support for a platform change and a binding vote (the position of most marriage equality activists at the time)
• Support for platform change and a conscience vote (the position ultimately adopted by Conference)
• No position on either – and instead allowing Conference to decide both
• Opposition to platform change and support for a binding vote (which would at least have been consistent with the previous seven years, when all ALP MPs had been bound to vote against equality) or
• Opposition to platform change and support for a conscience vote (Gillard’s position).

If Gillard had chosen any of the four other options described, it is reasonably likely that both the platform change and a binding vote would have been successful at the National Conference, something which would have made marriage equality entirely achievable in 2012 in the process.

Instead, Gillard used her position as Prime Minister, and Leader of the Labor Party, to lean on people to ensure that, no matter what happened in terms of the policy, marriage equality would never be able to be implemented through a binding vote. She chose to actively exert the influence that she had because of her office to deny the right to marry to her fellow Australians on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

She went much, much further than simply advocating for a particular outcome: Gillard even chose to be the main sponsor of the motion in favour of a conscience vote, thus transforming the entire issue into a ‘test of leadership’. By stepping into the fray in this way, Gillard had turned the question of marriage equality into a question of loyalty which, for those of us who haven’t (yet) managed to suppress it, was the dominant theme – well, its absence was anyway – of the last term of ALP Government.

Thus, to stand up for the principles of fundamental equality and human rights was seen to be disloyal to the Party leader, and to simultaneously stand up for a binding vote – something which should be standard operating procedure for a collectivist party – was seen as doubly disloyal. And there were people inside the party who were making that very argument – that to support equality, and more importantly, to support a binding vote, was to be disloyal to Gillard – in the days leading up to the crucial ballot.

In the end, Gillard and her supporters couldn’t hold back progress altogether. There was enough support on Conference floor to achieve a resounding victory in terms of changing the platform to support marriage equality – while the vote wasn’t counted, it was estimated to be around 3 to 1 in favour. But her conscience vote resolution was also successful – by a much narrower margin, of 208 to 184.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

In short, it was (just) a bridge too far for the ALP National Conference to effectively ‘roll’ a sitting Prime Minister on both parts of the marriage equality equation.

If she had adopted any of the other positions outlined above, Conference would have only had to ‘defeat’ her once, or even not at all (if she had either done the right thing and supported platform change and a binding vote, or not taken a position to begin with). I genuinely believe that, had Gillard taken a different view, a binding vote would have been more likely than not – meaning that Steve and I might very well be married today.

And that is why, of all the people who have contributed to the current sorry state of affairs in Australia, where LGBTI relationships are deemed not worthy of the same recognition as cisgender heterosexual relationships, I blame Gillard the most – because her actions, above those of any other, were the most decisive in ensuring this 2nd class status was continued.

In the coming months, and particularly with the release of Gillard’s memoirs in late September, there will be a concerted effort to glorify her Prime Ministership, and discuss only the positive accomplishments of her time in office – her rise as the first female Prime Minister, the introduction of a price on carbon, the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in federal law for the first time. And I would be the first to admit that they were all great accomplishments.

But biography should never be hagiography. So we must not overlook her central role in the defeat of marriage equality, not just in the last term of parliament, but also potentially in this one too, because she helped to ensure that ALP MPs would not be bound.

In this important respect, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard profoundly let down not just Steve and myself, but all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians who believe that their relationships should be treated fairly and equally under the law. She was someone who should have been on our side, but instead actively worked against us.

She was wrong, and she wronged our community. Her actions were inexcusable, and I know that I and others won’t be accepting any excuses which she might attempt to proffer in My Story.

Above all, what Julia Gillard did in late 2011 was unforgivable, and I for one will never forgive her. Nor should we ever forget.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #5: Because there’s no intellectual stimulation in arguing against stupidity

There are some public policy issues which, as well as being important, can give rise to ‘intellectual stimulation’. By that I mean something that provokes informed debate, with multiple views, genuine disagreement about the best solution, sometimes even substantive and substantial arguments about the definition of the ‘problem’ itself.

Sadly, marriage equality is not one of these issues. Instead of being an exchange of ideas, for the most part the pro- and anti-marriage equality ‘debate’ is not really a debate at all. And it can’t be. Because it is impossible to have a debate when one side turns up without any arguments whatsoever on their side.

If the past ten years have taught us anything, it is that anti-marriage equality campaigners are the intellectual Lilliputians of Australian public life. Sure they might have company out there on their ‘island of stupid’ (hello anti-vaxers!), but it is difficult to think of many other public discussions in recent memory when so much has been said by people who had so little of substance to say.

It has become common to say that the argument for marriage equality has been run and won. And that’s true – except ‘won’ is an understatement. The defeat of anti-marriage equality campaigners, on the intellectual playing field at least, resembles nothing more than the 7:1 drubbing handed out by Germany to Brazil in the recent men’s football World Cup.

It is such a one-sided affair that, at times, you almost feel tempted to invoke the ‘mercy rule’ (which the opponents of marriage equality would probably reject anyway because it has too much in common philosophically with euthanasia).

In practice, the vacuity of anti-marriage equality campaigners, like Jim Wallace, or Lyle Shelton, or Cory Bernardi (and countless others), hasn’t stopped them from spouting the same nonsense time and time again over the past decade. It doesn’t matter that what they say on this subject has no credibility, they’ll keep saying it regardless.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby.

And that’s the frustrating thing – approaching ten years since the original ban on same-sex marriage was introduced, and with the possibility of several more before equality is finally legislated, it remains our responsibility to have the same public ‘debate’ with these people. To calmly refute the ridiculous claims that marriage equality will harm children, or impact on religious freedom, or that just because marriage has ‘traditionally’ been man-woman that it automatically must remain so in future.

And when I say ‘our’ responsibility, we should acknowledge that this burden has fallen particularly heavily on the shoulders of people like Australian Marriage Equality’s Alex Greenwich, and later Rodney Croome, and the Penny Wongs and Bob Browns of the political world, who have had to sit on countless panels and engage in countless debates with the Jim Wallaces and Lyle Sheltons of the Australian Christian Lobby, while suppressing the natural urge to react emotionally against the ignorance of what is being said. Hats off to them for doing what many of us might struggle to do.

Of course, this isn’t to say there is no intellectual stimulation in marriage equality per se. There certainly have been, and continue to be, interesting intellectual debates on this subject. It just happens that they are all held between people who already assume that everyone should be equal, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The debate about whether people should be aiming to make marriage inclusive or abolish it altogether, about whether there was strategic value in pursuing state-based same-sex marriage laws or not (or whether to support the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 or not), about where marriage equality sits on the overall list of priorities for the LGBTI community – all provide more intellectual succour than discussing the issue of marriage equality with a campaigner who seriously believes that marriage, under secular law, should be restricted to heterosexual couples.

It’s just a shame that we seem consigned to having to continuing having this lop-sided non-debate for several more years to come. I for one can’t wait to discuss something a little bit more stimulating – and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

One final thing – you will hopefully notice that I have been careful to restrict these comments to anti-marriage equality campaigners, rather than all people who do not (or not yet anyway) support marriage equality. I am certainly not accusing all people who hold that view of being ‘stupid’.

However, I am most definitely saying that, if you have carefully considered the question of marriage equality, and come to the conclusion that the only acceptable form of marriage is one man and one woman, and that you will campaign for that publicly, despite having no arguments on your side that withstand any kind of scrutiny, and against the equality and human rights of your fellow citizens, well, as Forrest Gump might say, “stupid is as stupid does.”

Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality

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 Graphic

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:

i) The conservative Prime Ministers of both, John Key and David Cameron respectively, were personally committed to marriage equality
ii) A significant minority of conservative party MPs in both were willing to vote yes (46% in New Zealand, 49% in England & Wales)
iii) 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
iv) 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).

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who, unlike his conservative counterparts in the UK (David Cameron) and NZ (John Keys), strongly opposes marriage equality.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who, unlike his conservative counterparts in the UK (David Cameron) and NZ (John Key), strongly opposes marriage equality.

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: <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/national-affairs/julia-gillards-address-to-the-alp-national-conference-on-a-conscience-vote-for-gay-marriage/story-fnba0rxe-1226213001184 ).

Then Prime Minister celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

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: http://www.smh.com.au/national/we-wont-vote-for-gay-marriage-even-if-party-changes-its-position-say-labor-right-mps-20111130-1o766.html#ixzz371gEEuUI )

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: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/labor-senate-candidate-joe-bullock-sorry-for-offensive-speech/story-fn59niix-1226874445978 )

If a binding vote was good enough for Senators Wong & Pratt before the 2011 National Conference, it is good enough for Mr Hayes and Senator Bullock in 2015.

If a binding vote was good enough for Senators Wong & Pratt before the 2011 National Conference, it is good enough for Mr Hayes and Senator Bullock in 2015.

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:

i) 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.
ii) Would a binding vote in the ALP automatically mean there is no chance of a conscience vote inside the Coalition? No.
iii) 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.

The first key hurdle between now and next July is NSW State Conference, to be held on Saturday 26 July and Sunday 27 July 2014. That will be the last NSW Conference held before National Conference, and it is highly likely that a motion to support a binding position on marriage equality will be debated there.

There are a number of ways you can demonstrate your support for a binding vote in the two weeks left before this Conference. In particular, you can tweet, call, write or email either the Leader of the NSW Opposition, Mr John Robertson MP, or the NSW Labor Party itself, expressing your views in favour of genuine LGBTI equality. Their contact details are as follows:

Twitter (NB Please use the #ItsTimeToBind hashtag)
John Robertson @jrobertsonmp https://twitter.com/jrobertsonmp
NSW Labor @NSWLabor https://twitter.com/NSWLabor
Suggested tweet: Hey @NSWLabor & @jrobertsonmp, I believe #ItsTimeToBind in favour of #marriageequality. Please support a motion to bind at State Conference

John Robertson (02) 9230 2310
NSW Labor (02) 9207 2000 or 1800 503 035

Mr John Robertson MP
Leader of the Opposition
Parliament House
Macquarie St

Mr Jamie Clements
NSW Party Secretary
NSW Labor Party Head Office
PO Box K408

John Robertson leader.opposition@parliament.nsw.gov.au
NSW Labor nswlabor@nswalp.com

If you are stuck for something to write or say, here is a suggestion:

“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 support of marriage equality. I call on you to support a resolution in favour of a binding vote at the NSW State Conference on July 26 and 27, 2014.”

Will NSW Labor Leader John Robertson say I do to a binding vote at State Conference on July 26-27, 2014?

Will NSW Labor Leader John Robertson say I do to a binding vote at State Conference on July 26-27, 2014?

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. Once again, 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
Parliament House

Australian Labor
5/9 Sydney Avenue

Bill Shorten Online contact form: http://billshorten.com.au/contact
Australian Labor Online contact form: http://www.alp.org.au/contact_us

Again, 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.”

Will Federal ALP Leader Bill Shorten 'do the right thing' and support a binding vote at the 2015 ALP National Conference?

Will Federal ALP Leader Bill Shorten ‘do the right thing’ and support a binding vote at the 2015 ALP National Conference?

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 https://twitter.com/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.