One of these things is not (treated) like the others

One of the most compelling arguments in favour of a binding vote for marriage equality within the Australian Labor Party also happens to be one of the easiest to make.

And that is simply noting the many, many examples of morally and ethically complex issues on which ALP parliamentarians are expected to abide by a binding vote – and then asking why marriage equality should be treated any differently?

The obvious answer: it shouldn’t.

Given the Labor Party binds its MPs and Senators on nearly every single policy issue that is debated and voted upon in Commonwealth (and state and territory) parliament, there are plenty of possible examples to choose from. This post will look at just four:

  1. Refugee policy

If there is a single issue in the contemporary political arena that raises profound questions of morality and ethics, then refugee policy is it. I have my own strong views on it, as do most members of the Australian community (many of whom I would vehemently disagree with, particularly when considering the results of the last federal election).

Inevitably, so do Labor members of parliament – there are some who would probably agree with boat ‘turn-backs’ (arguing that they prevent mass drownings) and offshore processing and resettlement, just as there are no doubt many ALP MPs and Senators who do not support these measures because they sincerely believe them to be inhumane.

But, despite these differences of opinion, and ignoring the strength of convictions on this topic, when former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the majority of the caucus decided to reinstate offshore processing in 2012, leading to the indefinite detention, processing and resettlement of refugees in Nauru and on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, there was no conscience vote.

Instead, all MPs and Senators were required to vote in favour of the ‘Pacific Solution Mark II’ – and if they hadn’t, they would have been expelled from the Party.

It is impossible for anyone to argue that, if ALP parliamentarians can be bound to support the offshore processing and resettlement of refugees (including, of course, the detention of LGBTI refugees in two countries that criminalise homosexuality), they cannot similarly be bound to support the recognition of the fundamental equality of LGBTI relationships under secular law.

Former Speaker Anna Burke, one of Labor's most outspoken critics of the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees.

Former Speaker Anna Burke, one of Labor’s most outspoken critics of the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees.

  1. Metadata

Turning to a more recent example – in March, the federal Labor Opposition voted for, and consequently guaranteed the passage of, legislation that requires the compulsory retention of, and allows law enforcement agencies warrantless access to, the metadata of every Australian citizen.

Argued for on the basis of preventing terrorism by a Government that seeks refuge in the welcoming arms of ‘national security’ whenever it encounters poll troubles (which makes it, at the very least, highly questionable policy), there were a number ALP MPs and Senators who internally expressed their opposition to this massive intrusion into our private lives (including at least one high profile inner-city frontbencher, whose personal stance against the data retention scheme was reported in the media: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/mar/25/exclusive-albanese-spoke-out-against-metadata-bill-in-shadow-cabinet-meeting ).

In a party that is founded on the principles of solidarity and collective action, those same MPs and Senators were nevertheless compelled to support the legislation in parliament, no ifs, ands or buts.

Once again, it is incredibly difficult for anyone to seriously argue that, if Labor parliamentarians can be bound to support the Abbott Government’s metadata laws (which, in the views of some at least, represent one of the biggest encroachments on the civil liberties of Australians, ever), they cannot equally be bound to vote for something, like marriage equality, that would actually enhance the rights of its citizens.

  1. Single parent payments

One of the more controversial Budget decisions taken by former Treasurer Wayne Swan was the change to single parent payments, that effectively forced single parents – and primarily single mothers – onto the dole when their youngest child turned 8.

As with the previous two issues, there was significant backbench disquiet when these measures were first raised, on the basis of economic injustice, although that dissent did not prevent its adoption by the caucus, and therefore its passage in parliament thanks to a binding vote of ALP MPs and Senators.

Fast forward to the ALP leadership contest in September and October 2013, and both contenders for the top job, Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten, argued (some might say acknowledged) that this decision had been a mistake (see: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/leadership-rivals-agree-cut-for-single-parents-was-wrong-20130922-2u81m.html ).

If the ALP can bind its parliamentarians to support a cut to single parent welfare payments, something that was strongly argued against at the time, and which was later conceded as a ‘mistake’, including by the current Opposition Leader, why can’t it bind its MPs and Senators to support a policy that does not take anything from anyone, but would instead only give happiness to those couples who choose to participate?

  1. Live animal exports

The fourth and final issue which raised serious moral and ethical concerns for many members of the ALP caucus (this time borne out of concern for animal welfare), but on which those MPs and Senators were nevertheless still bound, was live animal exports.

Specifically, in 2011 and following the ABC’s Four Corners report, both when the decision was taken to suspend the live export of cattle to Indonesia, and again when the decision was taken to lift that suspension, all ALP parliamentarians were expected to vote in favour of these policies.

And, despite vocal criticism from a not insignificant number of backbench MPs at the time, ultimately crossed the floor against the position of the Government.

Just like the issues described above, if ALP MPs and Senators can be bound to support the live animal export of sheep and cattle, they can be bound to support the ability of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians to get married.

All four of these issues have raised, and continue to raise, profound moral and/or ethical issues for many members of the ALP caucus, whether those concerns relate to human rights (refugees), civil liberties (metadata), economic justice (single parent payments) or animal welfare (live animal exports).

There is nothing about the issue of marriage equality – which for most involves the question of LGBTI rights, but for others (however mistakenly) is solely about religious freedom – which makes it any more special, or controversial, or deserving of an opt-out clause from what would otherwise be a binding position of the Party.

In short, while one of these issues, marriage equality, might currently be treated not like the others, it is in fact exactly like the others – an important public policy issue, and one that may raise moral or ethical concerns for members of the caucus, but about which the ALP nevertheless adopts a position. There is absolutely no reason why that position should be made ‘optional’ with respect to marriage equality, especially when it is not for the other four.

Which means that, if the ALP can bind its MPs and Senators to vote for:

  • the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees
  • the compulsory retention of and warrantless access to our metadata
  • cuts to the single parent welfare payment, and
  • the live export of sheep and cattle;

then it can also bind its parliamentarians to vote for LGBTI equality, including the equal recognition of our relationships in the Commonwealth Marriage Act.

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