2 Additional Arguments Against an ALP Binding Vote on Marriage Equality… And Why They’re Wrong As Well

I thought I had already debunked most of the major arguments that our opponents could be expected to use against a binding vote ahead of ALP National Conference in two of my previous posts:


But that was before I had the misfortune of reading Barrie Cassidy’s intellectually malnourished opinion piece on the ABC’s The Drum website on Friday, 1 May (“Why Plibersek’s Gay Marriage Pitch Will Fail”: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-01/cassidy-why-pliberseks-gay-marriage-pitch-will-fail/6436082 ).

Now, I don’t have time to fully rebut all of the silly things that Mr Cassidy wrote (including his unwarranted smear, linking Ms Plibersek’s long-standing support for marriage equality to base electoral considerations), but there are a couple of arguments which deserve a response, especially because they are likely to be raised by others in the lead-up to July’s conference.

  1. The ALP should not ‘waste time’ discussing a binding vote because it is a distraction from other issues

This is a variation of an argument that is commonly used against marriage equality per se: and that is that marriage equality is either not as important as, or does not affect as many people as, other issues (like health, or jobs, or education, or climate change etc etc etc), and therefore we should not use ‘valuable time’ discussing it. Instead, we can apparently get around to it when everything else is ‘fixed’ (whenever that is).

We’ve become very adept at responding to that argument over the years (including observing that most people can walk and chew gum at the same time), which means we are well prepared when Barrie Cassidy writes nonsense like this:

“And already merely raising the issue has shown how divisive it can be. The ALP’s national conference is a singular opportunity for its leader, Bill Shorten, to take centre stage with a developed plan for the future built around economic management. The issue of Palestine threatens to distract from that. Loading up the agenda with an unnecessary brawl around gay marriage is a further impediment” (emphasis added).

Well excuse us Barrie if we, the ordinary members of the ALP, think that prioritising the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, and how we can best achieve those rights, is worthy of being debated for one short section out of a three day political conference.

And we’re sorry (or more accurately, #sorrynotsorry) that such a discussion might be uncomfortable for those who either oppose LGBTI human rights, or don’t believe a centre-left political party should be doing everything in its own power to pass marriage equality legislation (which is exactly what a binding vote would be – the most that the ALP can deliver).

After all, that is what the ALP National Conference is, or at least what it should be: a decision-making political gathering, where people put forward the best case for change, and attempt to persuade the majority of delegates to agree. That is all that Ms Plibersek, and many, many others, are seeking, and it is no less than we deserve.

To suggest otherwise – that it is actually some kind of extended press conference, where Bill Shorten can “take centre stage with a developed plan for the future built around economic management” but separate from any genuine policy debate – is a pretty hollow conception of what party democracy should look like.

One final point on this argument, and that is to note that we have been here before.

When John Howard first introduced legislation containing his homophobic ban on the right of LGBTI-inclusive couples of get married in 2004, the ALP hastily acquiesced. The primary argument used for that capitulation was the need to avoid a messy internal division, especially with a federal election to be held shortly thereafter.

Except that agreeing to support the marriage ban didn’t really help at the ballot box then – and the only long-term electoral consequence of that decision was to give the Greens a massive fillip, and decade-long recruiting tool, something that has been particularly evident at the recent Victorian and NSW elections.

We shouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Holding this particular debate now might be a challenge for some. But shying away from this fight will have much worse outcomes in the long run.

  1. The ALP should agree to a wider range of conscience votes

This argument has reared its head occasionally in recent years, including from the Member for McMahon and Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen.

Apparently, rather than agreeing to marriage equality being treated in exactly the same way as nearly every other policy issue, the ALP should instead significantly broaden the range of topics on which we allow individual MPs and Senators to vote solely according to personal preference (or individual whim).

And Barrie Cassidy appears to agree. On Friday he wrote:

“As voting patterns change, parties need to be more diverse. The broad church imperative grows, not diminishes. That means, at times foregoing discipline for flexibility; being more open to conscience votes, not less so.

“Insisting that conscience votes should be limited to matters of religious belief – life and death matters like abortion and euthanasia – is far too limited. They should apply to a range of debates not directly religious, but more a matter of morality and, yes, conscience; issues where feelings are deeply personal and immutable, like surrogacy, adoption, stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified food.”

It’s funny (or more accurately, not amusing in the slightest) that even when pressed to come up with suggestions for additional issues that could attract a conscience vote, all Mr Cassidy could name are further examples where religious conservatives are likely to disagree with the majority Labor position – plus ‘genetically modified food’ which is tacked on rather bizarrely at the end.

For Mr Cassidy, and presumably others like him, things like the offshore processing and resettlement of refugees, the passage of privacy-invading metadata legislation, or even the decision of whether or not to go to war, are not issues ‘where feelings are deeply personal and immutable’.

This goes to the heart of the problem with proposals like those of Mr Bowen – the net outcome of an increase in the use of conscience votes within the ALP is likely to simply be an expansion of the number of issues on which religious or conservative MPs and Senators can undermine the chances of progressive reforms – and that includes on LGBTI policies, too.

This is not about increased party democracy, it is instead about further ways to restrict the ability of left-wing and progressive members of the party, both inside and outside Parliament, to effect change.

And that is before we even deal with the philosophical weakness of the case for more conscience votes, which was so eloquently highlighted by the Member for Griffith, Terri Butler, during the week (discussing marriage equality at 8 minutes, 50 seconds onwards: http://media.smh.com.au/news/federal-politics/childcare-policy-and-marriage-equality-6484325.html ):

“I can’t think of too many issues that we vote on in the Parliament that aren’t moral issues…

“Everything we decide has a moral dimension because it’s always a question of what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to the nation and the Australian people.

“I think that quarantining out same-sex marriage on morality basis, it just is jarring when you are asking Members of Parliament to vote on other issues that are equally significant to them and to their constituencies.

“…Every single piece of legislation that we consider as a caucus must be considered from a perspective of what’s right for our nation and what’s right for our constituency.”

Hear, hear.

Perhaps the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald should have watched this video, on their own website. It might have helped avoid a second major clanger of the week (after their column on Wednesday, which I was compelled to respond to here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/29/tanya-pliberseks-principled-stand-threatens-to-achieve-progress-on-marriage-equality/ ).

In today’s editorial (http://www.smh.com.au/comment/smh-editorial/the-shoppies-union-and-labors-samesex-marriage-flaw-20150501-1mxphs.html ), which primarily focussed on the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, the preferred union of the Catholic Right, they actually wrote this:

“So angry are many in modern Labor that deputy federal leader Tanya Plibersek decided this week to go public with a plan to match the Shoppies’ use of Labor’s policy and rules forums to force federal MPs into a binding vote in support of same-sex marriage, as opposed to the current conscience vote.

“Unfortunately, Ms Plibersek’s method was equally undemocratic.”

The unavoidable conclusion of this argument – which describes simply seeking the authority of the ALP’s supreme decision-making body to make a policy position binding, in exactly the same way that nearly everything else is, as “undemocratic” – is that any binding policy is similarly undemocratic.

In essence, the Sydney Morning Herald editor(s) are arguing for a political party to be based entirely on conscience votes. Perhaps they, and Mr Cassidy and Mr Bowen for that matter, should be reminded that we had a political party that was based on this philosophy – the Australian Democrats – and they were deregistered by the Australian Electoral Commission last month.

For the rest of us, who still believe in a Party, and movement, based on collective action and solidarity, the case for a binding vote for marriage equality is as clear as ever. And it remains up to us to make that case, as loudly and as frequently as possible, in the three months left til National Conference.

Barrie Cassidy, whose The Drum opinion piece this week could charitably be described as 'not his best work'.

Barrie Cassidy, whose The Drum opinion piece this week could charitably be described as ‘not his best work’.

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