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

Last week I wrote about, and responded to, four of the most common arguments that will be used by opponents of a binding vote on marriage equality between now and the ALP National Conference in July (see: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/09/4-arguments-against-an-alp-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality-and-why-theyre-wrong/ ).

Well, they are not the only arguments that will be employed by people resisting any move to a bound Labor Party vote in favour of full LGBTI equality. This post looks at four more arguments that we are likely to hear… and explains why they are wrong, too.

  1. A conscience vote on both sides is the only way marriage equality can happen

The current make-up of Commonwealth Parliament, with a large Liberal-National Party majority in the House of Representatives, means that marriage equality cannot be passed in this term without a formal conscience vote within the Liberal Party. It is no surprise then that so much effort, from Australian Marriage Equality and others, has gone into trying to secure that outcome.

But, even if the Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, grants a ‘free vote’ – and that remains a pretty big if – it does not mean marriage equality will necessarily pass.

In fact, looking at the numbers, it would be very difficult (although not impossible) for it to succeed, even with a conscience vote on both sides – largely because the number of moderate Coalition MPs voting in favour is unlikely to be enough to get it over the line, especially given the significant minority of socially conservative ALP MPs that would still use their conscience vote to oppose it.

Which means it is incumbent upon us to consider other ways of reaching 75. One would be for the ALP to adopt a binding vote for marriage equality, ensuring all 55 of its lower house MPs support it, and for the Liberals to adopt a conscience vote, meaning the votes of only 1 in 5 Coalition MPs would be required for passage. Of course, the inherent risk of this strategy is that, once Labor adopts a binding vote in favour, the Coalition continues to embrace a ‘party vote’ against.

And that might happen. But it is by no means guaranteed – there is no reason why the decision of one side should automatically be reflected by the other (noting that we are already 3 and a half years into a period of ‘asymmetry’, with a bound vote on one side and conscience vote on the other). There will also be some MPs, with surnames like Gambaro, O’Dwyer and Turnbull, who would have a compelling electoral reason to keep trying for a conscience vote in any event.

All of which means that it is unclear whether marriage equality can be achieved this term, and if so, under what circumstances. What is clear, however, is that, given there is a real risk it will not be passed, we need to be actively considering what happens at the 2016 election, and how marriage equality might best be achieved in its aftermath.

The most direct path to marriage equality is for the ALP to adopt a binding vote at this year’s National Conference, and for it to win the 2016 federal election. In that scenario, marriage equality is passed, no ifs or buts.

Even if the election result is close either way –a small Labor victory, minority government/hung parliament, or a small Coalition victory – an ALP binding vote still probably means marriage equality is passed (because most crossbenchers are in favour, and a handful of Liberal Party backbenchers would likely cross the floor to support).

On the flipside, a conscience vote within the Labor Party, and either a conscience vote within the Liberal Party or a Coalition vote against marriage equality (with a small number of dissenters), would still leave marriage equality in plenty of doubt, and some doubt even if Labor wins the election next year.

So, while there is obviously a strong case for people to be pushing for a Coalition conscience vote on marriage equality at the moment, it is by no means the only way to achieve this important reform – and, in some scenarios, it might not be needed at all.

  1. If Liberal MPs enjoy a conscience vote, Labor MPs should have one too

This argument is related to the first, and suggests that, if and when Tony Abbott (or his successor) eventually grants a conscience vote within the Liberal party room, giving his colleagues a ‘free vote’ on the issue, Labor Party parliamentarians would also deserve a conscience vote.

Leaving aside the fact that marriage equality concerns the rights of LGBTI-inclusive couples, not the supposed ‘rights’ of ALP MPs and Senators, there are two main problems with this approach.

First, as we have already seen, there is no reason why the decision by one side of politics to grant a conscience vote (or not) must automatically be reflected by the other. It has been more than three years since the ALP granted its parliamentarians a conscience vote on this issue, something that has still not been replicated by either the Liberal Party or National Party.

Just because the Liberal Party might adopt a conscience vote in the future does not mean the ALP must keep theirs.

Second, using this rationale to argue against a binding vote within the ALP is effectively giving power to Prime Minister Abbott to determine both whether the Liberal Party has a conscience vote, and whether (or at least when) the ALP moves to a binding vote.

I can think of very few policy issues where the delegates to ALP National Conference would happily cede their authority, on an issue of fundamental importance to a large number of ALP members, to Tony Abbott. Here’s hoping they don’t do this, on marriage equality, come July.

Why should Tony Abbott get to decide, on one hand, whether Liberal MPs get a conscience vote, and on the other, whether Labor MPs should be bound?

Why should Tony Abbott get to decide, on one hand, whether Liberal MPs get a conscience vote, and on the other, whether Labor MPs should be bound?

  1. Passing marriage equality through an ALP binding vote would place it in danger of being repealed in the future

I have heard this argument a few times – that, if we manage to secure marriage equality solely, or even primarily, because of a binding vote within the ALP, then we risk it being repealed by a subsequent Coalition Government.

In reality, there is very little danger of this happening. If the ALP adopts a binding vote at the 2015 National Conference, and marriage equality is passed this term, it means, at a minimum, that the Liberals have granted their MPs a conscience vote (and, given the direction of progress across society, it is unlikely they would retreat from that commitment in the future).

Labor is also highly likely to narrow the gap in terms of numbers in the House of Representatives at the 2016 election, further entrenching this reform under a combined bound vote/conscience vote approach.

If the Liberal Party does not agree to a conscience vote now, and marriage equality is instead passed via a binding vote under a new Labor Government in 2016, it is nevertheless hard to see it being repealed at a later date.

That would involve the Coalition returning to power in 2019, maintaining its ‘party vote’ against equality (which, with the passage of another four years, will be increasingly difficult to sustain) and ensuring no Liberal or National backbench Senators cross the floor to prevent repeal. Which is an unlikely combination.

It also dramatically underestimates how quickly marriage equality would become an accepted part of the law, and culture. With approximately two thirds of the population already supportive, even some people who are presently opposed would be left wondering, in a relatively short timeframe after it was passed, just what all the fuss was about.

Indeed, the only comparable situation I can think of is Canada, where the Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, won minority Government in January 2006, just six months after Parliament passed its nation-wide marriage equality legislation.

Elected with a promise to hold a parliamentary vote on ‘re-opening the same-sex marriage debate’, within months it was clear that opposition had diminished, and acceptance of equality had grown, even within his own party.

By December 2006 a vote was indeed held – and lost by 175 to 123 – leaving Mr Harper to admit “I don’t see reopening this question in the future”. And, almost ten years later, it is clear he was right.

Australia would almost definitely be the same – once passed by Parliament, it is highly unlikely a future Parliament would vote to repeal marriage equality.

  1. A binding vote on marriage equality would ‘split’ the Labor Party, and therefore shouldn’t be pursued

Again, I have seen this argument used a few times recently, and it deserves a response. From a marriage equality advocate’s point of view, this possibility should be assessed through the prism of whether it helps, or hinders, the passage of marriage equality legislation. Nothing more or less.

And from that perspective, it is difficult to see a potential ‘split’ harming the cause. This is because, in 2012, more than 40% of the ALP caucus failed to vote in favour of marriage equality. Even assuming the proportion of MPs backing reform has risen since then, and that perhaps up to three quarters of House of Representatives ALP MPs would now support it, that still leaves 14 out of 55 who would likely exercise their ‘conscience vote’ against LGBTI equality.

I have seen no reports or estimates, anywhere, to suggest that 14 or more ALP MPs would cross the floor against a binding vote and therefore be expelled from the Party (and an additional number in the Senate). And I don’t think any serious commentator genuinely believes the number of people willing to break the rules of their political party, over this matter, would be that high.

Which means that, even accounting for a very small handful of MPs and Senators who could conceivably leave the Party over this issue, the number of votes for marriage equality would nevertheless be higher under a binding vote than under a conscience vote, thereby making passage through the parliament easier. End of story.

Of course, as someone who is both a marriage equality advocate and a long-term ALP member, the issue of a potential ‘split’ raises other considerations. I wrote about these in greater length in my post “Hey Australian Labor, it’s time to bind on marriage equality”, last year (https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/ ), and I do not propose to repeat all of those arguments here.

However, I would make the following brief points:

a) The number of MPs and Senators who end up crossing the floor against a binding vote, and being expelled from the party, is likely to be much smaller than many people think. Despite repeated claims that ‘at least half a dozen Senators’ could cross the floor, we should note that only two caucus members – Mr Chris Hayes MP and Senator Joe Bullock – have so far put their names publicly to this threat (and even they have not repeated these claims recently).

The inflated numbers that appear in stories in the lead-up to National Conference, without names attached, should be seen for what they are – attempts to intimidate or ‘blackmail’ the Party into backing down from making support for LGBTI equality a core Labor value.

b) The people making this threat (publicly or otherwise), were also quite happy for a binding vote to be imposed on progressives who supported equality, from 2004 to 2011, and did not object to Senators Penny Wong and Louise Pratt being forced to vote against their own human rights. To argue now that it is okay to bind progressives, and even members of the LGBTI community, against equality, but that binding religious conservatives to support equality is unacceptable, is hypocrisy at its worst.

c) Any decision by an MP or Senator to cross the floor in contravention of a decision by ALP National Conference, the supreme decision-making body of their chosen political party, and contrary to the broader philosophy of a party and movement founded on collective action and solidarity, would be an act of profound disloyalty and one that I, and the vast majority of ordinary Labor members will never, can never, respect.

The fact that it would be done because the parliamentarian(s) concerned could not abide the idea that couples like Steve and I might have the same rights – under secular law – that they enjoy, simply because of our sexual orientation, makes their prospective choice all the more disreputable.

All of which is to say that I concede there may well be some MPs and Senators who feel compelled to cross the floor on marriage equality, and therefore be expelled from the Australian Labor Party as a result.

But it will be a very small handful who choose to ‘split’ themselves from the party, and they would be doing so on the basis of hypocrisy, and disloyalty, and for a motivation that very closely resembles prejudice. To be frank, the loss of a few such individuals would not be much of a loss at all. And it is even less of a reason not to pursue a binding vote for marriage equality at this year’s ALP National Conference.

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