What a binding vote for marriage equality is – and what it is not

With roughly ten weeks left until the 2015 ALP National Conference, and about one month into the public debate around a potential binding vote for marriage equality, there has been considerable media coverage of this issue.

Unfortunately, a lot of this coverage has been unhelpful, focussing on things that might be of interest to political commentators, but in practice having very little to do with what will actually be discussed by delegates sometime between July 24th and 26th.

This post aims to redress some of that imbalance, by attempting to clarify what a binding vote for marriage equality is – and just as importantly, what it is not – about.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT about division, the leadership or the Greens

It was perhaps inevitable that at least some political reporters would cover the question of a binding vote as nothing more than an issue of ‘division’ within the Labor Party, rather than a genuine debate pushed by people who want to see their political party commit to fully supporting the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

What was surprising – and perhaps disappointing – was to observe just how widespread this characterisation was. When even The Guardian writes articles that start like this:

Labor leadership divides over compulsory same-sex marriage yes vote

Tanya Plibersek wants to end the conscience vote, but Bill Shorten says it should stay. And Chris Bowen wants a conscience vote but will now vote for, not against.

Internal division within the Labor party over a binding vote on same-sex marriage has deepened, as senior frontbencher Chris Bowen backflips on his opposition to the issue” (http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/may/03/labor-leadership-divides-over-compulsory-same-sex-marriage-yes-vote?CMP=soc_567 )

then it is abundantly clear why Australia cannot sustain serious debate, especially on issues such as climate change or refugee policy that are significantly more complicated than this.

Hint to our journalists – this is what internal party democracy looks like, with different people putting forward different positions, and the arguments behind them, in the lead-up to a meeting where representatives from around the country will decide which approach Labor will ultimately take. That is discussion, not ‘division’.

A second recurring theme of coverage has been to view the entire issue through the prism of a supposed ‘leadership challenge’ between current Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who opposes binding, and Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek, who supports it (for example, raised in this Sydney Morning Herald article: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tanya-plibersek-push-on-samesex-marriage-faces-defeat-amid-labor-leadership-split-20150430-1mww0s.html ).

This is wrong on a number of levels, not least because it is an issue Ms Plibersek has been campaigning on for a number of years – long before she was the Deputy Opposition Leader. It is somewhat galling that, in a political culture where figures are constantly derided for core and non-core promises, and commit backflip after backflip, here someone is being criticised for continuing to push the same progressive agenda she always has even after reaching a senior leadership position.

Indeed, the idea of binding in favour of marriage equality is something that has been pushed by a large number of people within the ALP for a very long time, including well before the last National Conference. At that particular meeting, 184 delegates voted to support a binding vote (narrowly losing to the 208 delegates who supported a conscience vote).

They must have been remarkably prescient, in December 2011, two Prime Ministers and a change of Government ago, to have been expressing a view on a leadership contest in 2015, between two people who were then the Ministers for Financial Services and Superannuation, and Human Services, respectively.

But the main reason why this is not about a leadership challenge is because, while her strong advocacy is obviously welcome, this issue is not really about Ms Plibersek at all.

There are a significant number of ALP MPs and Senators who have expressed their support for a binding vote over the course of the past month (with the Herald reporting that at least 25 members, or almost a third, of caucus back this move: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/huge-spike-in-labor-mps-support-for-samesex-marriage-20150508-ggx4z4.html ).

And there is an even larger number of ordinary ALP members, and Rainbow Labor members right around the country, who are pursuing this change. To reduce all of their – and our – activism to being about a non-existent leadership challenge is, putting it bluntly, utter rubbish.

Finally, there have a number of reports linking the push by Ms Plibersek and others within the party for a binding vote to a move to combat the rise of the Greens, and specifically as a response to the recent Victorian and NSW State Elections, where the Greens either retained or won the seats of Melbourne, Prahran, Balmain and Newtown.

Malcolm Farr in news.com.au was perhaps the most explicit on this theme: http://www.news.com.au/finance/work/labor-fears-it-is-losing-urban-strongholds-is-behind-the-push-for-binding-marriage-equality-vote/story-fn5tas5k-1227336759408

But, once again, it is hard to see how, when the majority of the Queensland and Tasmanian branches of the ALP voted to call for a binding vote at their state conferences in mid-2014, they were somehow ‘responding’ to elections in other states, that were still six-to-nine months away.

A binding vote for marriage equality has been a long-standing goal of progressive members of the Labor Party – and certainly existed long before the recent inner-city electoral successes of the Greens.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS about both principle and reality

As we all know by now, the overall fight for marriage equality is about nothing more (or less) than the equal treatment of all people, including LGBTI Australians and their relationships, in secular law.

The principle, at its core, is that the Government should not discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, by denying them access to state-sanctioned marriage, simply because of who they are and/or who they love.

Turning more specifically to the issue of whether the ALP should adopt a binding vote for marriage equality, it too is about principle – that, as a matter of fundamental equality and human rights, there is no legitimate reason to allow individual MPs and Senators to vote against the caucus position on this issue which acknowledges those rights.

In the same way that the ALP would not allow individual parliamentarians to break from party solidarity to vote for a racist law, there must not be special exceptions provided to allow some MPs and Senators to vote against the rights of LGBTI Australians.

We could have the entire debate, between now and the end of July, focussed exclusively on these two principles.

But marriage equality, and whether we adopt a binding vote, is about more than just that – as we have been starkly reminded over the past fortnight.

Because marriage equality is about reality too – the real-life couples who want nothing more than the right to be married, but who are currently denied that right by their own Government.

Couples like Sandra Yates and Lee Bransden, who were forced to seek money through a crowd-funding campaign to enable them to marry in New Zealand, where marriage equality has been legal for two years, before Ms Bransden dies from lung cancer (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-04/crowd-funding-campaign-for-gay-wedding-in-new-zealand/6442318 ).

This is the real face of marriage equality – the couples who are waiting for the same rights as everyone else, including those couples for whom time is very quickly running out (and of course the many couples for whom time has tragically already evaporated since the ban was first introduced in 2004).

In this instance, the crowd-funding campaign was successful, and the couple were married in New Zealand on Saturday (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-16/gay-tasmanian-couple-seal-dying-wish-with-new-zealand-wedding/6475226?WT.ac=statenews_tas ).

Which is heart-warming. But it should not have come to this, we should not be reduced to this – begging via public appeals just to allow older couples to leave the country to marry before they die, and even then stripping them of that legal equality as they re-enter Australia on their way home together for the last time.

This situation is indignity writ large.

Marriage equality is right in principle. Binding for marriage equality is right in principle. But it is the reality – of couples like Sandra and Lee – which reminds us why the issue is so urgent, and why we need as many MPs and Senators as possible, including all of those from the Australian Labor Party, to vote yes on this issue. Right. Now.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT about the ‘rights’ of MPs and Senators to vote no

On the other side of this debate are those who would argue that, while marriage equality may be important, it is more important to respect the supposed ‘rights’ of individual MPs and Senators to vote against it.

The clearest demonstration of this view came on Sunday 3 May when Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen announced he had switched from his long-standing opposition to marriage equality, to personally supporting it – as part of an ongoing conscience vote. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/chris-bowen-drops-opposition-to-samesex-marriage-20150503-1myp1v.html ):

“In a conscience vote I have decided I would support same-sex marriage and that’s not traditionally the approach I took last time,” he said.

“On my marriage certificate at home it has got the Australian coat of arms as it has on all of ours. It is our right as a citizen to get married and it is a right that should be applied equally.”

“I have friends who have had to go overseas to get married; I don’t think they should have to go overseas to get married as Australian citizens so I would support it.”

But Mr Bowen said the matter should be decided by each member of Parliament on its policy merits rather than politicians being forced to vote for or against same-sex marriage.

“I think people should be given their own time to develop their thinking and their approach,” Mr Bowen said…

In effect, Mr Bowen is saying that, while he acknowledges the fundamental injustice experienced by his friends, it would in practice be more unjust to compel his colleagues in the federal parliamentary Labor Party, including Senator Joe Bullock and MP Chris Hayes, to have to vote for his friends’ rights through a binding vote.

This is the reality – people who support a conscience vote in the ALP are actually saying that the right of individual MPs and Senators to vote against marriage equality is more important than the rights of real-life couples, like Sandra and Lee, to marry.

How can that possibly be? One is a genuine injustice – the denial of fundamental rights solely on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The other? How is requiring a Labor member of the House of Representatives, or Senate, to vote in accordance with the Party platform and in favour of marriage equality, in any way unjust, and indeed so unjust that it outweighs anti-LGBTI discrimination?

The way in which opponents of a binding vote try to ‘dress up’ this issue as a matter of competing rights is by claiming that it would be a denial of their freedom of religion to have to vote this way. But, in making this argument, they are misunderstanding and misrepresenting what freedom of religion is, and most importantly, what it is not.

Freedom of religion is allowing people to believe what they wish, including on issues of ‘morality’, within their religion and their particular religious organisations, for example, choosing to recognise, or not recognise as the case may be, LGBTI-inclusive relationships as being equal.

There is nothing in any marriage equality Bill introduced to date that would compel an organised religion to conduct same-sex weddings against its wishes, or to recognise those relationships as equal within their own faith.

And that freedom of religion includes MPs and Senators within the Labor Party – even if they were obliged to support marriage equality under secular law, they would continue to be free to consider LGBTI relationships as second-rate (or worse) within their particular faith.

On the other hand, freedom of religion does not justify allowing those same parliamentarians to impose their particular religious belief, and their definition of marriage, on the rest of us – the growing number of Australians without faith, and the even larger number of believers, including some religious bodies themselves, who do support marriage equality.

The ‘freedom of religion’ of individual MPs and Senators is not a sufficient basis to override the freedom from religion of everyone else, and the legitimate expectation that we should be treated equally under secular law.

And it is definitely not enough of an argument to override the ordinary rules of the Australian Labor Party – which expects solidarity from its parliamentarians on everything from refugees, to metadata, single parent payments to live animal exports, and should be able to expect solidarity on this subject too.

There are only two possible ways in which ‘freedom of religion’ would be a genuine basis on which to argue against a binding vote.

The first would be if a marriage equality law sought to change the definition of marriage within religion(s) – including by ordering particular religious organisations to undertake LGBTI-inclusive marriage ceremonies. And, as already noted, exactly none of the marriage equality Bills proposed in Australia to date require this.

The second would be if a marriage law sought to discriminate against people of religious backgrounds – for example, a law that actively prohibited people of a particular faith (or perhaps prohibited people of different faiths) from marrying, and again no law proposed to date does anything of the sort [as an aside, those same people who claim it would be a denial of fundamental freedoms to compel a religious person to vote for marriage equality had no qualms when LGBTI individuals, including Senators Wong and Pratt, were compelled to vote against their own legal equality].

Given neither of these conditions exist, we are left with a large imbalance, between a genuine injustice on one side (the denial of the right to marry to LGBTI Australians) and only a perceived injustice on the other (the supposed denial of the freedom of religion of individual MPs and Senators), with the latter not withstanding close scrutiny.

The choice between the two should be easy.

Unfortunately, not only does Chris-sy-come-lately Bowen reach the wrong conclusion on this, he – and other recent marriage equality converts like Ed Husic and Julie Owens – take their (il)logic one step further.

As reported by the ABC on Wednesday 6 May, all three have personally switched from opposing to supporting marriage equality (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-06/western-sydney-labor-mps-swing-to-favour-gay-marriage/6447516 ). But the same report noted that “[a]ll three MPs said the freedom to choose through a conscience vote is an important condition for their support” (emphasis added).

Come again? Do we really have members of the ALP caucus saying they personally support marriage equality, which is also the position outlined in the ALP Party platform, but that they would not support marriage equality if this position was made binding on the Party’s MPs and Senators, in the same way that almost every other issue is subject to a binding vote?

This is really ‘through the looking glass’ stuff. Despite Ed Husic noting that “if there was no logical reason to prevent this change [marriage equality], why stand in the way of it?” (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/support-for-samesex-marriage-grows-in-the-alp-as-mp-ed-husic-switches-position-20150505-ggu5um.html ) he apparently would do exactly that just to give his colleagues the ‘right’ to vote no.

This is an absurd position to adopt – one hopes it is only (preposterous) posturing ahead of National Conference, and that they will vote yes if and when a binding vote is ultimately adopted with respect to members of caucus.

But irrespective of whether they believe what they are saying or not, Bowen, Husic and Owens, and indeed any ALP MP or Senator who says that marriage equality is important, but not sufficiently important to bind on, should be reminded that this issue is not about them, or their colleagues, or their colleagues’ supposed ‘freedom of religion’ – it is about LGBTI people who are denied equality under secular law.

And there is no reason to extend that injustice for one day longer.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS about the ALP delivering as many yes votes as possible

Of course, the ALP on its own cannot pass marriage equality in the current term of Parliament – in order to pass before the 2016 Federal Election Tony Abbott must grant his MPs a conscience vote.

Consequently, there has been a lot of speculation about what impact an ALP binding vote might have over subsequent machinations within the Liberal Party. Indeed, it is something that I have covered multiple times elsewhere (including under the section “It’s Time to Bind: The Strategy’ here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/).

But, what we need to remember is that the ALP has zero actual control over what the Liberal Party room does behind closed doors – if it did, the Liberals would have granted a conscience vote at some point during the three and a half years that Labor has already had one.

What the ALP does control is its own internal rules.

By adopting a binding vote the Labor Party would be delivering as many votes as it possibly can towards the cause of marriage equality – more than the just over 50% of MPs and Senators who voted yes in September 2012, and more than the 78% of MPs, and 68% of Senators who indicate they would support it if a vote were held today (as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald here: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/huge-spike-in-labor-mps-support-for-samesex-marriage-20150508-ggx4z4.html ).

It is difficult to see how such a move could be criticised by others who also support marriage equality. To do so is effectively arguing ‘please do not provide more votes to the cause which we all agree is important’.

And yet, this is exactly what some have done in recent weeks – with perhaps the most prominent example being another recent convert to supporting marriage equality, openly-gay Liberal Senator Dean Smith.

Immediately after the latest of Ms Plibersek’s calls for a binding vote, Senator Smith responded by saying he was ‘personally disappointed’ by it (http://www.smh.com.au/national/gay-liberal-senator-dean-smith-slams-tanya-plibersek-over-gay-marriage-move-20150427-1mu99l.html ), that “I have always been distrustful of the Left on this issue and now my personal fears have been realised,” and further that “[t]his has put the cause back and she needs to explain herself to same-sex marriage proponents.”

In 2015, with Australia having fallen behind 18 (and soon to be 20) countries on this issue, we seriously have an openly-gay conservative Senator criticising a progressive Deputy Opposition Leader for having the temerity to seek to deliver more votes from her Party in favour of marriage equality.

Dean-ny-come-lately Smith could have been excused for those comments, given it was the day after the issue had ‘blown up’ in the media and upon further reflection he might have recognised how ridiculous they sounded.

Instead, the following week he gave an interview to The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/binding-vote-on-same-sex-will-set-back-cause-ask-a-gay-liberal/story-e6frg7bo-1227337768868 ), where all he managed to achieve was to dig his own hole that much deeper.

Not only did he reiterate his criticisms of Labor for daring to suggest they might all commit to supporting LGBTI equality, he crucially admitted that, even if there was a conscience vote on both sides:

“marriage equality would likely be defeated. He cautions the advocates of gay marriage inside his party to slow down. “Yes, community opinion is changing, but it is changing slowly and I am comfortable with it changing slowly.”

This admission completely undercuts his arguments. He inadvertently concedes that the only way marriage equality could be passed this term is by a binding vote from Labor and a conscience vote from the Liberals, and yet he is explicitly arguing against that outcome (and also arguing against the ability of a new Labor Government to independently pass marriage equality if it was elected in 2016).

But that isn’t even the most offensive thing about the article – that would be his repeated calls for people to ‘slow down’, to ‘wait’, for their fundamental equality. In addition to the above quote, he also said:

“Give the country as much time as it needs. This is not an issue that is going backwards. It is only heading in one direction and the pace of the forward direction should be left to the community to decide.”

Leaving aside the fact the vast majority of the community is already there (with 72% support from the public, the only roadblock is our Parliament), he directly contradicts his own reason for supporting equality, which is included in the very same article:

“I was on a plane. I realised that Tori (Johnson) was gay. His partner had lost his lifelong partner. I thought, ‘I have lots of gay friends who are waiting for the laws to change. They don’t want to go to New Zealand to marry’.”

So, his reason for finally backing marriage equality is that people shouldn’t have to wait for the same rights as their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts, that it is tragic if they die without having realised those rights, and yet in the next breath he argues that they should wait, for as long as he deems necessary (or, to use his own words, as long as he is comfortable with).

That is simply not good enough, not from someone who supports marriage equality as an issue, nor from one of the few openly-LGBTI people ever elected to the Australian Parliament.

Perhaps, instead of attacking people like Tanya Plibersek for trying to deliver additional votes for marriage equality, Senator Smith should spend a little more time making the case for change within his own party room.

If he is successful in that task – and we, the Labor Party, are successful in achieving a binding vote in July – then we could all even see marriage equality passed this year.

Liberal Senator Dean Smith, who is 'relaxed and comfortable' with LGBTI Australians being made to wait for their human rights.

Liberal Senator Dean Smith, who is ‘relaxed and comfortable’ with LGBTI Australians being made to wait for their human rights.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT over

The last misconception that I wanted to address also happens to be the easiest to debunk – and that is the argument that, just because Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has come out against a binding vote, the debate is somehow over.

Yes, it was disappointing that Mr Shorten chose not to demonstrate leadership on this issue (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-30/shorten-rejects-calls-to-axe-same-sex-marriage-conscience-vote/6434354 ), instead falling back on platitudes like “I certainly have a view, though, that the best way to win the argument on marriage equality is to convince people not force them” (which, when you think about it, sounds like he is arguing for a conscience vote on anything and everything, not just on LGBTI rights).

Nevertheless, just because the parliamentary Leader of the Party has adopted this position does not mean that delegates to ALP National Conference in July will necessarily agree with him.

In fact, all we need to do is look to his predecessor, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and the positions which she took to the 2011 National Conference on this issue; to oppose marriage equality, and to support a binding vote.

Not only did the Conference overwhelmingly reject her homophobia on the first (by a margin so large that the count wasn’t called, so she wouldn’t be embarrassed by how comprehensive her ‘defeat’ was), but delegates very nearly voted against her position on the issue of binding, too –it was only defeated by a margin of 208 votes to 184.

Which demonstrates two things – one, that Shorten’s position might be influential, but it is very much possible for National Conference to disagree with the Leader and two, that all it would take is for 13 people to change their minds for the vote to be resolved differently this time around.

Some commentators (looking at you, Barrie Cassidy) might be surprised by the possibility National Conference could decide this way, but they shouldn’t be.

As raised earlier, almost a third of ALP MPs and Senators already support binding (25 out of 80 – with 33 against and 12 undeclared). And, as demonstrated by successive national ballots, for National President and Party Leader, the general membership is in fact much more progressive than the parliamentary caucus.

All of which is to suggest that success on a resolution for a binding vote is very much a possibility. But it will not happen without a sustained push in the weeks that remain – and that is something we all have a responsibility to pursue, in whatever way we can. It’s time we all demanded that #ItsTimeToBind.

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2 thoughts on “What a binding vote for marriage equality is – and what it is not

  1. Dean Smith was not elected. He was appointed, under section 15 of the constitution, to replace Senator JA Adams, who died. He suffers immensely from internalised homophobia.

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    • Thanks Ross for the clarification re election versus appointment. As for internalised homophobia, given I am not a psychologist, nor do I know him personally, I can’t agree with that. What I will say is that it is incredibly disappointing that someone from our community would so brazenly tell our community to slow down and wait for equality.

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