Bill Shorten, Will You Lead on Marriage Equality?

The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Leader of the Opposition

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House


Saturday 24 January 2015

Dear Mr Shorten


Today marks six months until the Australian Labor Party is scheduled to hold its next National Conference. This Conference will determine the party’s formal position on a large number of important issues ahead of next year’s election.

One of these issues is actually unfinished business from the previous National Conference, held in December 2011, and that is the position that the ALP adopts on marriage equality.

While that gathering took the welcome step of making support for marriage equality an official part of the platform, it also immediately undermined that policy stance by ensuring all MPs were to be given a conscience vote when it came before Parliament.

That decision – to ‘support’ marriage equality, but then make that support unenforceable – guaranteed that any Bill would fail in the last Commonwealth Parliament, and continues to make passage in the current Parliament extremely difficult (even with a potential, albeit increasingly unlikely, Liberal Party conscience vote).

However, you, and the delegates to this year’s National Conference, have the opportunity to right that wrong. And make no mistake, the conscience vote is inherently wrong, not just because of its practical impact in making legislative change unobtainable, but also because it is unprincipled, and un-Labor.

Having a conscience vote on something like marriage equality, which is a matter of fundamental importance for many members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, says that our human rights are optional, our equality is optional.

A conscience vote makes it clear that homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia are acceptable, that the second-class treatment of our relationships is officially condoned, that Labor Party MPs are free to treat LGBTI Australians as ‘lesser’ simply because of who we are. In essence, a conscience vote on marriage equality is unconscionable.

A non-binding vote on marriage equality is also ‘un-Labor’ because it is contrary to the principles of collective organising upon which the party is founded. Ideas of solidarity and being ‘stronger together’ are supposed to reflect core philosophy, not simply act as slogans, and definitely not something that is abandoned simply because some caucus members are so homophobic they cannot abide the thought that LGBTI people might be their equal.

A conscience vote on this issue, from a party that adopts binding votes on nearly everything else (from refugee policy to climate change and almost all things in between), also makes it difficult for the Australian community, and the LGBTI community in particular, to take the platform position in favour of marriage equality seriously.

This is something that can, and must, be changed at this year’s National Conference, given only it has the power to introduce a binding vote in favour of marriage equality for all ALP MPs.

Acknowledging that there will be groups both inside and outside the ALP who will strongly oppose any moves to support full LGBTI equality, achieving a binding vote on marriage equality will be difficult, and therefore requires the support of a party leader who is willing to do just that, to ‘lead’.

Which makes the question at the heart of this letter: Bill Shorten, will you lead on marriage equality?

There is cause for optimism in that you are already part-way there. Unlike your equivalent at the 2011 Conference, Julia Gillard, who adopted the worst possible position in opposing both marriage equality and a binding vote, you were one of the first ministers to express personal support for the right of all people to marry, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

It’s time for you to take the vital next step, to back up this personal commitment with meaningful action, to use the influence of your position as the Parliamentary Leader of the Australian Labor Party to support a binding vote in favour of marriage equality, thereby declaring once and for all that LGBTI human rights are not optional, that LGBTI equality is absolutely not optional.

Doing so could only enhance your credibility as a leader, because it would show you were unafraid to take on people like Chris Hayes and Joe Bullock, who attempt to blackmail the party by saying they would rather cross the floor than vote for equality, and that you were willing to stand up to the SDA, a union that should spend more time looking after the interests of its members, and less resources and energy on opposing the right of LGBTI-inclusive couples to wed.

It would also show the public that when you make public commitments, when you support a position on an important policy issue like marriage equality, you are ready to take action and do what is required to make sure it happens.

Finally, if you were to support a binding vote on marriage equality it would only heighten the contrast between yourself and Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a ‘yesterday’s man’ who is so homophobic he remains personally committed to denying the right of his own sister to get married. Such a contrast would surely help you at the ballot box in 2016.

In short, the option to support a binding vote on marriage equality is full of opportunity, with many possible benefits and few, if any, adverse consequences. I sincerely hope it is an opportunity you are willing to grasp, and grasp firmly.

I started this letter by noting one anniversary – that there are now exactly six months left until the 2015 ALP National Conference. I want to conclude by telling you about another, one that probably doesn’t mean much to you, but means everything to me.

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of my engagement to my fiancé Steve. On 23 January 2010, he made me an incredibly happy man by saying “Of course I will” to my proposal. But, here we are five years later, and we still have no idea how many more years we will be left waiting before we can both say “I do”.

To put that in perspective, you married Chloe Bryce in November 2009, roughly two months before my engagement to Steve. Which means that, for almost the entire time you have been married, we have not been – for the simple reason that you love a woman, and I love a man.

But there is another important difference. While I have absolutely no control over whether you have the right to marry, or when you might be permitted to do so, you exert a significant amount of influence over the existence, and timing, of Steve and my wedding.

As Labor Party Leader, in this a National Conference year, you have the ability to help steer the party towards a binding vote, thus correcting the gross error of the 2011 Conference decision to support a conscience vote. You can make marriage equality a genuine possibility in 2016 or early 2017, rather than something which will continue to be delayed until 2018, 2019 or even into the 2020s.

For the benefit of Steve and myself, and thousands of other LGBTI-inclusive couples who are still waiting for the same right to marry which you and other couples can take for granted, please support a binding vote in favour of marriage equality at the 2015 National Conference, and help make our long-overdue weddings a reality.


Alastair Lawrie

Will Bill Shorten lead on marriage equality, or will he let this opportunity slip through his grasp?

Will Bill Shorten lead on marriage equality, or will he let this opportunity slip through his grasp?

NB If you would like to read further about why I believe a binding vote is essential to achieve marriage equality, please read “Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality”: <

And to see a more comprehensive LGBTI agenda for the 2015 ALP National Conference, you can go to “15 LGBTI Priorities for ALP National Conference 2015”: <

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