4 Arguments Against an ALP Binding Vote on Marriage Equality… And Why They’re Wrong

The arguments in favour of a pro-marriage equality binding vote within the Australian Labor Party are incredibly strong.

Marriage equality is about the fundamental equality of all Australians, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, and therefore it would be inappropriate to give a ‘free pass’ to some MPs within the ALP to vote against it.

The Australian Labor Party, as a collectivist organisation, also binds its MPs to vote together on nearly all issues – and there is no legitimate reason why marriage equality should be an exception to this principle.

And, strategically, a pro-marriage equality binding vote within the ALP is probably necessary for this reform to pass in either this or the next term of Parliament.

But, despite the above, there will still be many people, both within and outside the Party, who will try to argue against a binding vote between now and when it is finally voted upon at ALP National Conference in July.

This post looks at four of the most common arguments which will be made – and why they are unambiguously wrong.

  1. The ALP never binds on ‘gay issues’

There are two insurmountable problems which face anyone who attempts to raise this argument.

First, it’s simply not true. The two biggest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) law reforms which have ever been passed by the Commonwealth Parliament, namely:

  • the recognition of same-sex relationships (outside of marriage) in the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws – General Law Reform ) Act 2008 (and related changes to superannuation and family law), and
  • the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 which introduced federal LGBTI anti-discrimination protections for the first time

were passed by the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments – and both were achieved through binding votes.

Second, even where there were conscience votes related to ‘homosexuality’ – for example, in states and territories when sex between men was being decriminalised – in order to successfully use that as a precedent for another conscience vote today means effectively saying that it was ‘right’ that some ALP MPs were historically allowed to vote for the continued criminalisation of people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.

So, if you are basing your supposed ‘right’ to vote against the full equality of LGBTI relationships now on the fact that other people voted, unarguably, on the basis of homophobia in the past then you should expect to be called out on it – because that is the not-so-proud tradition with which you are associating (for more on this argument, see It’s Time to Bind: The Merits, here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/ ).

  1. The ALP never binds on ‘marriage’

This is perhaps my favourite of the pro-conscience vote arguments, and it has been ever since then Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard employed it during her speech at the 2011 ALP National Conference to argue against a binding vote. And by favourite, I mean the most laughable.

In essence, Ms Gillard attempted to argue that, because ALP MPs had been given a conscience vote on the Marriage Act 1961 when it was introduced, and when amended by the Family Law Act reforms of the mid-1970s, ALP MPs should have a conscience vote today (full text of the speech 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 ).

Leaving aside the fact that a lot had changed during the previous five decades, Prime Minister Gillard also managed to completely overlook the 2004 Howard Government amendments to the Act – which introduced a definition of marriage and about which, as Ms Gillard well knew at the time of her speech, the ALP bound its MPs and Senators to support.

If the ALP can bind its parliamentary members on something as fundamental as the legislative definition of the word marriage, as recently as 2004, then this argument is completely and utterly bogus.

Nicola Roxon, the Shadow Attorney-General who, in August 2004, first told the National Marriage Forum the ALP would be supporting Howard's homophobic legislation.

Nicola Roxon, the Shadow Attorney-General who, in August 2004, first told the National Marriage Forum the ALP would be supporting Howard’s homophobic legislation.

  1. The issue of marriage equality is so controversial the ALP cannot bind its members on it

Okay, so there is no consistent history of conscience votes on LGBTI issues, or even of marriage-related conscience votes, but maybe by combining these issues – and making the argument specifically about the issue of marriage equality – opponents of a binding vote might be more successful, right?

Wrong. As we all know (far, far too well by now), the 2004 definition of marriage introduced by the Howard Liberal-National Government, with the bound support of the Australian Labor Party Opposition, was the first major substantive vote on, and sadly against, marriage equality in the Commonwealth Parliament.

But it was by no means the last. It was followed by a series of votes, over more than seven years, in which all ALP MPs and Senators – including those who were LGBTI themselves, as well as those who were progressive and simply supported the fundamental equality of people irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status – were bound to vote against marriage equality.

Even though this position was overturned by the 2011 ALP National Conference, the modern Labor Party has still had a binding vote on marriage equality for more than twice as long as it has had a conscience vote.

And if it can bind its MPs against marriage equality, less than four years ago, there is absolutely no reason why it cannot bind its MPs for marriage equality in 2015 (and, if necessary, beyond).

  1. Marriage equality is about ‘choice’, therefore MPs should be given the choice whether to support it or not

This argument was made most recently by Andrew Probyn in The West Australian who, as well as repeating the rumour that ‘half a dozen Senators’ would cross the floor rather than vote for marriage equality (though as usual naming only Senator Joe Bullock), made the following comment: “[f]orcing a vote on an issue that is ultimately about choice would be dumb indeed” (story here: https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/opinion/a/26807957/tony-abbott-the-anti-hero-on-gay-marriage/ ).

His argument has at least the merit of being distantly (and I mean very distantly) related to something that is true. Marriage equality is indeed about choice – the choice lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should be able to exercise, to decide for themselves whether (or not) to marry their partner.

LGBTI people should be given the exact same choice that cisgender heterosexual couples currently enjoy. Because LGBTI people deserve to be treated equally under the law.

And it is the last point that is the most important. The issue, at its heart, is not about choice, it is about equality. The equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and the legal equality which should apply to our relationships.

And it is offensive to suggest that ALP MPs and Senators should, on the basis of their own personal beliefs, be free to choose to deny the equality, and consequently the human rights, of their fellow citizens solely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Equality, and the recognition of fundamental human rights, should not be an ‘optional extra’ for a contemporary centre-left political party.

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