It’s Time To Bind – Counting the Numbers

No, this is not a post about the expected numbers for and against a binding vote at the upcoming ALP National Conference, where this issue will be debated. Given the delegates for the largest state branch (NSW) have yet to even be decided, it would be decidedly premature to speculate about whether such a motion is likely to be successful or not.

Instead, this is a post about the numbers for and against marriage equality in the current Parliament, something that the Sydney Morning Herald has investigated in today’s article “Huge spike in Labor MPs’ support for same-sex marriage” ( ).

As the article’s title suggests, there has been a significant increase in the number of ALP parliamentarians willing to vote for this important reform since it was defeated in September 2012.

The Herald then uses this increase to assert that “Fairfax Media’s findings call into question deputy leader Tanya Plibersek’s recent strategy to push for a binding vote at the ALP conference in July.”

In fact, the reported increase does no such thing. In reality, and on a purely numbers basis, the findings by the Sydney Morning Herald actually confirm the benefits of a binding vote. Allow me to explain.

First, to the good news.

In the House of Representatives, the percentage of ALP MPs in favour of the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, and of our relationships, has increased from 53.5% in 2012 (when 38 of 71 MPs voted yes) to 78% today, with 43 of Labor’s 55 members of the House of Representatives saying they would vote in favour of a new Bill.

Together with the yes votes of Independents Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan, and the Greens’ Adam Bandt, that means marriage equality legislation would still be 30 votes short of passage – and even with a Liberal Party conscience vote, it is unlikely that fully one third of Coalition MPs would vote yes in the current Parliament.

However, the dramatic growth in support from within the Labor caucus, together with the expected significant increase in the overall number of ALP MPs at the next election (whether they form government, or are defeated by a lesser margin than in 2013, which seems like a reasonable assumption), means that support from a much smaller number, and therefore reduced proportion, of Liberal MPs would be required for passage in the next term.

In short, the figures in today’s paper indicate that, while a conscience vote on both sides would still probably not pass the House of Representatives this term, it now has a much better chance in the next.

Turning now to the bad news – and the Australian Senate (charitably described by the Herald as ‘more conservative’ than the House of Representatives).

Just as in the House of Representatives, there has been an increase since 2012, albeit not nearly as dramatic: from 52% (16 out of 31) of ALP Senators then, to 68% – or 17 out of 25 – now.

In the rest of the Chamber, there is confirmed support from all ten Greens, plus Senators Xenophon and Leyonhjelm (although it is unclear whether he would insist on provisions which would provide civil celebrants the ‘right’ to be bigots: and which might therefore be unacceptable to others), meaning 29 confirmed votes in favour – ten votes away from passage.

Even if there was a conscience vote from the Liberal Party, there are only three Coalition figures who have indicated they would say yes: Senators Birmingham (SA), Sinodinos (NSW) and openly-gay Liberal, and recent marriage equality convert, Dean Smith (WA). Which gets us to 32.

That still leaves the reform seven votes short of success – and it is difficult to see how we get there.

The Australian Marriage Equality website ( ) actually lists nine current non-Labor Senators as “undecided/undeclared”:

  • Senator Dio Wang, Palmer United Party (PUP), WA
  • Senator Glenn Lazarus, formerly-PUP, Qld
  • Senator Ricky Muir, Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, Vic
  • Senator Barry O’Sullivan, LNP (sits in Nationals Party room), Qld
  • Senator George Brandis, LNP (sits in Liberal Party room), Qld
  • Senator James McGrath, LNP (sits in Liberal Party room), Qld
  • Senator Mathew Canavan, LNP (sits in Nationals Party room), Qld
  • Senator Linda Reynolds, Lib, WA
  • Senator Anne Ruston, Lib, SA

However, as you will note four of these are from the Queensland Coalition, a branch so conservative that the only Liberal or National parliamentarian, from either chamber, who did not oppose marriage equality legislation in 2012 (Sue Boyce, who abstained) subsequently did not appear on the Senate ticket in 2013, despite having served only one full term [as an aside, all six Coalition Senators from Queensland in the current term, to date, are men, only reinforcing how conservative they are north of the border].

And two of those four Senators from the LNP sit in the Nationals Party room federally which, even if the Liberals do grant their parliamentarians a conscience vote, probably won’t follow suit.

Which means that, if the Nationals do refuse a conscience vote (as appears highly likely), every single other undecided/undeclared Senator – from PUP, to ex-PUP, to Motorists, and including all four undecided Liberals – has to vote yes in order for it to be successful. That might happen… but I doubt it.

And, if the Queensland LNP puts pressure on at least one (and possibly both) of its two undecided Liberal Senators to vote no, as also seems likely, a conscience vote this term would, inevitably, be defeated. In fact, most realistic permutations of the above numbers would put marriage equality two or three votes short this term.

Unfortunately, with that defeat our problems would only just be beginning.

Unlike the House of Representatives, there is limited capacity for further significant change in the numbers, both because of who the ALP Senators against equality are, and because of the 2010 and 2013 Senate election results.

In terms of the ALP Senators who do not yet support marriage equality (technically, both the Herald and AME list Chris Ketter as undecided/undeclared, but we should treat him as opposed, for reasons that will become clear below), they are:

  • Senator Helen Polley, Tas
  • Senator Catryna Bilyk, Tas
  • Senator Alex Gallacher, SA
  • Senator Joe Bullock, WA
  • Senator Chris Ketter, Qld
  • Senator Deb O’Neill, NSW
  • Senator Jacinta Collins, Vic
  • Senator Stephen Conroy, Vic

Of these, six are formally aligned to the Joe De Bruyn-led, virulently homophobic SDA – Polley, Bilyk, Bullock, O’Neill, Collins and Ketter. Of the other two, Gallacher confirmed his ‘no’ vote to the Herald, and Conroy voted no in 2012, without any clear signs he will change his mind in the near future.

The 2016 election will be of little assistance in changing these numbers. Bilyk, Bullock, Ketter, O’Neill and Collins’ terms all run until June 30, 2020. Of the three whose terms expire in mid-2017, Polley and Conroy have confirmed they are seeking pre-selection for the next election, and given this is currently Gallacher’s first term, we should start with the assumption that he will go around again too.

The 2010 Senate election result is also relevant because it was, overall, roughly a 50:50 split between the Australian Labor Party and Liberal-National Coalition.

That means, unless there is a pro-Labor landslide in 2016 (something which appears a receding prospect), the next Senate will have similar numbers to now, and the ranks of ALP Senators who support marriage equality will not increase unless:

  • There is a forecast for heavy snow in the underworld (ie the SDA drops its opposition to LGBTI equality and human rights) or
  • There is a binding vote.

Absent that binding vote, or a corresponding change of sentiment inside the Liberal Party, the numerical situation in the Senate cannot really change until the 2019 federal election, with senators elected at that poll taking their seats on 1 July 2020 (and, even if marriage equality was subsequently passed as quickly as possible, legislation would probably not take effect until early 2021).

Which is a long-winded (and certainly longer than I had originally planned) way of saying that, even if the Senate only narrowly defeated marriage equality under a conscience vote this term, it is certainly possible we could remain, agonisingly, a vote or two short of equality for the duration of the next term as well.

Now, I don’t know about you, but, having already been engaged for more than five years, I am not all that interested in planning an autumn 2021 wedding. Which is just one more reason why the ALP should consider adopting a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.

It would automatically change the equation – from July 27, 2015. In the current term, 25 ALP Senators, plus ten Greens and Xenophon and Leyonhjelm in favour mean the votes of only two of the undeclared/undecided cross benchers (Wang, Lazarus and Muir) would be required for it to pass. And that is without any Liberal Party conscience vote.

Even if one or two Labor Senators put their personal views above party loyalty and were consequently expelled, there would presumably be one or two Liberals who would cross the floor to support equality in any event (and yes, we’re looking at you Senator Smith). And, unless there is a pro-Coalition landslide in 2016 (which, thankfully, also appears a distant prospect), a binding vote within the ALP means marriage equality should pass the Senate in the next term too.

There is even the possibility that the Labor Party adopting a binding vote would actually pressure the Liberals into allowing a conscience vote – after all, it would be a crazy/brave political party to bind against a view held by 72% of the population and one on which your opponents have taken the popular position (for more on this, see the discussion under “The Strategy” here: ).

So, far from ‘calling into question’ the push for a binding vote, the numbers revealed in today’s Sydney Morning Herald can in fact be seen as reinforcing the benefits of a bound ALP position, both in the current term and in potentially avoiding a long wait, until 2021, for marriage equality to finally become law.

There are two final comments which I would like to make.

First, it seems uncharitable of the Herald not to have highlighted the role of the calls by Tanya Plibersek, and others, for a binding vote in getting hitherto ‘silent’ supporters of marriage equality within the ALP (Bowen, Husic, Owens, Ripoll and Sterle) to ‘come out of the closet’, so to speak.

It is absolutely no coincidence that all five have declared their support in the fortnight after Ms Plibersek’s comments were widely-reported in the media – with some even explicitly linking their support for marriage equality with a campaign against a binding vote.

That is more progress within the ALP caucus than in the previous 12 months combined, and is at least partly a result of the push for binding.

Second, I have just spent the best part of 1700 words discussing numbers, and tactics, and the positions of various parties, and of individual MPs and Senators, without even mentioning possibly the most salient point of the original Sydney Morning Herald article – and that is the position put by WA MP Melissa Parke:

“West Australian MP Melissa Parke, a vocal internal critic of Labor’s approach to asylum seekers, pushed back against binding vote doubters, reasoning that just as her Left faction had had to accept a tough policy on refugees, others should have to accept same-sex marriage.

“I don’t see why members of the religious right shouldn’t have to do the same on a matter of equality,” she said.”

Hear, hear. While it is easy to get caught up in discussing strategy, we should not forget that the primary debate on binding concerns a fundamental matter of principle.

As a party of collective action, built on the idea of solidarity, there is absolutely no reason why we should not unite in favour of the equality of all Australians, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. Thank you Ms Parke for reminding us of that.

Labor MP Melissa Parke, reminding us that, if the Party can bind its MPs on its refugee policies, it can bind them to vote in favour of marriage equality.

Labor MP Melissa Parke, reminding us that, if the Party can bind its MPs on its refugee policies, it can bind them to vote in favour of marriage equality.

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