What Tony Burke gets right, and what Anthony Albanese gets wrong, about Marriage Equality

Let’s be honest, when I started this blog almost three years ago, that’s not a headline I ever imagined writing.

And nor is the following sentence – thank you Tony Burke for committing to vote for marriage equality the next time it comes before Federal Parliament.

Mr Burke’s announcement last Sunday (24 May)[i], that his “stance on this issue has developed considerably since the last time we voted on marriage equality” (September 2012), was, to say the least, unexpected.

It is also incredibly useful.

Not just because his vote in the House of Representatives will come in handy later in 2015, when, as seems likely, marriage equality will have its best chance of passage this term.

But also because, as a right-wing MP, and someone who is factionally-aligned with the Joe De Bruyn-led SDA, Mr Burke has demonstrated that even people who have traditionally opposed LGBTI equality can recognise that marriage equality is both a social good, and inevitable.

Indeed, it has been a long journey from voting against an equal age of consent in 2003 when he was a NSW Upper House MP, to supporting the equal right to marriage irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

If Mr Burke can make that journey, then so can his factional colleagues. He has set a powerful precedent that people like Senator Joe Bullock should follow.

Nevertheless, the most important part of Mr Burke’s conversion was the statement announcing his change of heart in which he inadvertently makes an excellent case for a binding vote within the ALP.

This is because he makes it very clear that there is no intellectual basis to vote against equality.

First, as marriage equality advocates have argued consistently from the very beginning, Mr Burke acknowledges that changing the marriage law will affect nobody other than the additional people who would be allowed to marry.

From his statement:

“The time has now come for the conversation in communities like mine to move to the fact that this change will occur. We need to get to the next stage of the conversation to explain why those who do not want the change will be unaffected by it” (emphasis added).

“The laws around the care of children have already changed. The laws around the treatment of de-facto relationships have already changed. These all occurred with little fanfare. They delivered a benefit to those who were directly affected and went largely unnoticed by those who might otherwise thought to object.”

And he reiterated that “[t]hose who want to marry will be able to do so. Those who do not want the change will be unaffected by it.”

Second, Mr Burke also made it very clear that the recognition of marriage equality in Commonwealth law would have exactly zero negative impact on religious freedom.

Again, from his statement:

“It is a long time since the law of marriage matched the various religious views of marriage. There are some laws that precisely match principles that are enshrined in religious faith. There are other religious principles such as turning up to a church, mosque, temple or synagogue each week which no one in Australia would remotely suggest should be enshrined in law.”

The various religious faiths will continue to have their own views and rules around marriage. The law of Australia needs to respect the freedom of people to practice their faith and it will” (emphasis added).

“But the days when the law of Australia can limit access to marriage in ways that are so far removed from the modern community view have long since passed.”

So, according to Mr Burke’s own words:

  • This reform affects no-one other than lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians who are currently prohibited from marrying but, if marriage equality passed, would finally be allowed to do so, and
  • This reform has absolutely no adverse impact on freedom of religion.

If that is the case, and it should be said I agree with his assessments, then on what possible basis can anyone argue there should be a conscience vote within the Australian Labor Party on this issue, rather than a binding one?

Answer: they can’t.

Perhaps, then, as well as outlining to the citizens of Watson why he supports marriage equality, Tony Burke could also spend time between now and the ALP National Conference in July with some of his factional colleagues “explain[ing] why those who do not want the change will be unaffected by it.”

Tony Burke, an accidental advocate for a binding vote on marriage equality.

Tony Burke, an accidental advocate for a binding vote on marriage equality.

At the other end of the ALP’s factional spectrum, another Anthony made his own contribution to the marriage equality debate this week.

On Tuesday, senior Left figure and long-time marriage equality supporter Anthony Albanese made a ‘constituency statement’ to the House of Representatives following the victory for equality in the Irish referendum[ii].

In it, the Member for Grayndler reiterated his personal support for LGBTI equality, by noting that:

Giving one group of people the rights they have been denied does not, in any way, diminish the rights that currently exist for the rest of us” (emphasis added).

“I fail to see how the institution of marriage is weakened if more people have the right to participate.”

Which, like Mr Burke, is a welcome recognition that marriage equality would not directly affect anyone outside those who would now be able to participate in it (and of course their family and friends who would be able to join them for their celebrations).

If only ‘Albo’ had left it at that.

Instead, he went on to attempt to make the case for a conscience vote within the Australian Labor Party. And in doing so, he made a number of unfortunate errors.

Mr Albanese started by saying that “I strongly believe there should be a vote in this Parliament this year. It should be a conscience vote. That would enable parliamentarians to have a mature debate in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.”

“Whilst I have strong views in support of marriage equality, I respect those who hold a different view. You cannot promote diversity and tolerance whilst not showing tolerance for those who disagree with you” (emphasis added).

Leaving aside his implication that the only way to have a mature debate on an issue in Parliament is through a conscience vote (and if that is the case, I assume he will be moving to make all ALP positions conscience votes in future), Mr Albanese then mischaracterises marriage equality as concerning ‘tolerance and diversity’ rather than something more profound – the fundamental equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

Perhaps he should have listened to his factional colleague from the neighbouring seat of Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, when, back in April, she framed the issue in this way:

“Labor has always been a party that is opposed to discrimination… It is a clear question. Do we support legal discrimination against one group in this country? Or do we not?”[iii]

Viewed like this, while we can all acknowledge and respect the fact that ALP MPs and Senators have a diversity of views about marriage equality (and that those opposed shouldn’t be chased with pitchforks for holding that opinion), that alone is not sufficient justification to allow individual parliamentarians to actually vote against the legal equality of their fellow citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Mr Albanese, as a stalwart of the Left, should understand that a very high threshold is required in order to abandon the standard operating procedure of a political party based on solidarity and collective action – and simply invoking the words ‘tolerance and diversity’ in a speech doesn’t even come close to clearing it.

Albo went on in his statement to claim that: “I have argued consistently that the Coalition needs to allow a conscience vote on this issue. It is inconsistent to argue something different within the Labor Party.”

Which many people might think is a reasonable point to make but, upon further analysis, is also not true.

As both Mr Burke, and Mr Albanese in his own speech, have made abundantly clear, the only people directly affected by marriage equality are LGBTI couples.

In that context, it is entirely rational to say that nobody should be compelled to vote against the equality of their fellow citizens. Which is justification to argue that the Liberal Party should move from a bound vote against marriage equality, to allowing their parliamentarians to have a conscience vote on this issue.

But there is no equivalent argument the other way – if legalising marriage equality does not negatively impact on anyone else, including those with strong religious views on the subject, there is no valid reason why an MP or Senator should not be compelled to vote for it.

And, as something that would help achieve legal equality for a marginalised group in society, there is a case for compelling parliamentarians to vote in favour.

Which provides the justification to simultaneously argue for a bound vote in support of marriage equality within the Australian Labor Party – a position that would also be consistent with how the Party approaches 99.9% of issues that come before Parliament.

Therefore, arguing for a conscience vote within the Liberal Party and a bound vote within Labor isn’t ‘inconsistent’ – in fact, it is philosophically sound, because both are in pursuit of fundamental human rights.

Unfortunately, the calibre of Mr Albanese’s argument only goes down from there. From his statement:

“In 2002, as a member of the ALP National Executive, I dealt with a report to resolve the issues surrounding the use of conscience votes in a process which included Labor’s pre-eminent authority on our internal history and processes John Faulkner.”

“There have been conscience votes on a range of issues over the year [sic] including the Family Law Bill 1974, euthanasia in 1996 and the Marriage Bill (1961).”

“The ALP National Executive decided unanimously that “the most appropriate model is the case-by-case, political model, but with consideration and tolerance of other factors relating to religion, the party platform and precedent.””

First, it is pretty brazen of Mr Albanese to name-check my old boss, former Senator John Faulkner, and his involvement in an internal 2002 process which looked at conscience votes within the ALP, thereby potentially encouraging readers to assume he would agree with him on this issue today.

The exact opposite is true – when the question of a conscience vote versus binding vote was debated at the 2011 ALP National Conference, in Albanese’s words “Labor’s pre-eminent authority on our internal history and processes” was one of the most passionate speakers in favour of a bound position.

In his speech, which is accessible on YouTube (and which I highly recommend watching[iv]), Senator Faulkner powerfully argued that “I take the view that a conscience vote on human rights is not conscionable.”

Second, simply citing 20th century examples of ALP conscience votes was not persuasive when then Prime Minister Julia Gillard adopted this tactic at the same Conference[v], and it is equally unpersuasive when used by Mr Albanese now.

How are conscience votes from 54 years ago, and 41 years ago, respectively, particularly relevant when determining what to do on this issue now? After all, marriage has changed enormously from the time Robert Menzies or Gough Whitlam occupied the Lodge.

One example: even in the past two decades, the proportion of people married by civil celebrants has risen from 42.1% in 1993, to 72.5% in 2013[vi]. It is clear that the Australian population has moved on from seeing marriage as a religious institution.

And it is also difficult to see how the ALP’s approach to the Marriage Act in 1961 – which was 14 years before the first Australian jurisdiction even legalised homosexuality – or in 1974 – which was 34 years before the recognition of same-sex de facto relationships in Commonwealth law – have all that much to say about how Labor should approach the question of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex equality today.

But perhaps most pertinently, why did both Prime Minister Gillard and Mr Albanese completely overlook the ALP’s much more recent, and directly relevant, history of a binding vote on marriage equality, from August 2004 (when it supported Howard’s homophobic ban on marriage equality) until December 2011?

The issue of marriage equality didn’t fully emerge on the international stage until the Netherlands became the first country to introduce it in April 2001. In the 14 years since then, the ALP has had no formal position for three years, a binding vote (opposing marriage equality) for seven and a half, and a conscience vote for only three and a half.

This shows that, if we are to look to the ALP’s past for an answer to this ‘dilemma’, there is much more of a precedent for binding on this issue than there is for a conscience vote.

Third, and finally, even applying Mr Albanese’s own test – “the case-by-case, political model, but with consideration and tolerance of other factors relating to religion, the party platform and precedent” – a binding vote in favour clearly passes it.

Politically, the vast majority of the population, Labor voters, the ALP membership and the caucus all support marriage equality, and nearly all of them (us) have long since reached the point of frustration, simply wanting our parliamentarians to ‘just pass the damn thing already’.

A binding vote on this issue would demonstrate to everyone that Labor takes this issue seriously, and will do everything within its own power to ensure it becomes law.

As we have already seen, it also satisfies the ‘religion’ criteria – remembering even Tony Burke argued that “[t]he various religious faiths will continue to have their own views and rules around marriage. The law of Australia needs to respect the freedom of people to practice their faith and it will” (emphasis added).

As for the Party platform – well, we amended that to support marriage equality at the National Conference in 2011, and there does not appear to be any substantive reason for making support for that part of the platform ‘optional’ on the part of MPs and Senators.

And, as described above, a binding vote on marriage equality would be in line with historical precedent, with the ALP having already adopted a bound position from 2004 to 2011.

Does Anthony Albanese's argument for a conscience vote pass his own test? Nope, nope, nope.

Does Anthony Albanese’s argument for a conscience vote pass his own test? Nope, nope, nope.

All-in-all then, it is fair to say that Mr Albanese’s arguments for a conscience vote are unimpressive – and certainly far less impressive than Mr Burke’s rhetoric.

Although, it should be acknowledged here that making such a distinction between the two is somewhat of a false dichotomy.

Despite observing that marriage equality does not directly affect anyone outside LGBTI Australians, and certainly has no impact on freedom of religion, Mr Burke does not follow his own arguments through to their logical conclusion.

Instead, Mr Burke too believes that the right of his parliamentary colleagues to vote against marriage equality is more important than the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians to actually get married.

Which means that, in substance, both Mr Burke and Mr Albanese are half-right and half-wrong.

Half-right, to personally support marriage equality and to commit to voting that way when it next comes before the Parliament.

Half-wrong, to argue that the fundamental human rights of LGBTI Australians are not worth binding for.

It is the same half-right/half-wrong position the Australian Labor Party as a whole has adopted since the 2011 National Conference, when delegates voted overwhelmingly to change the Platform to support marriage equality, but also voted (albeit much more narrowly) to make the issue subject to a conscience vote.

The delegates to this year’s Conference, to be held in Melbourne in about eight weeks’ time, still have the chance to change that equation, and ensure that, on marriage equality, our Party finally gets it completely right – that, to adapt the words of Ms Plibersek:

Labor has always been a party that is opposed to discrimination. When asked the clear question whether we support legal discrimination against one group in this country or not, the answer is an unequivocal no.

If we seize this opportunity, and make support for marriage equality binding on our parliamentarians, then it will be a proud moment in our Party’s history.

But not nearly as proud as being able to say, whenever marriage equality finally passes the Commonwealth Parliament, that members of the Australian Labor Party voted unanimously in support.

There’s still time to make that happen. There’s still time to bind.

[i] Full text of Mr Burke’s announcement here: http://www.tonyburke.com.au/tonystaff/statement_24_may_2015

[ii] Full text of Mr Albanese’s constituency statement here: http://anthonyalbanese.com.au/constituency-statement-marriage-equality

[iii] From the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April, “Plibersek push to make Labor MPs vote for same-sex marriage”: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/plibersek-push-to-make-labor-mps-vote-for-samesex-marriage-20150427-1mteon.html

[iv] To view Senator Faulkner’s 2011 National Conference Speech, go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmiIFvxbh8c

[v] Full text of Prime Minister Gillard’s speech against a binding vote at the 2011 ALP National Conference here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/national-affairs/julia-gillards-address-to-the-alp-national-conference-on-a-conscience-vote-for-gay-marriage/story-fnba0rxe-1226213001184

[vi] From the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Marriages and Divorces, Australia: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3310.0

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