Why the Australian Labor Party should still adopt a binding vote on marriage equality

Over the past couple of months, a large number of people have invested a lot of time and energy in the possibility of a conscience vote within the Liberal Party, and that such a vote will, alongside the votes of the majority of ALP (and all Greens) MPs and Senators, help to deliver marriage equality in the second half of 2015.

And many have argued that, given this focus, we should no longer pursue a binding vote in favour of marriage equality within the Australian Labor Party at their National Conference, which will be held in Melbourne in ten days’ time (Friday 24 July to Sunday 26 July 2015, with the binding versus conscience debate likely to be held on the Sunday afternoon).

But we should remember that these two goals – seeking a conscience vote within the Liberal Party, and an ALP binding vote – are not mutually exclusive (as I have explained in previous posts)[1].

Even more importantly, we should acknowledge that, while we may hope for a Liberal Party conscience vote, it would be dangerous to expect it to happen.

Much of the optimism of recent times relates to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comments in Parliament in the week after the successful Irish marriage equality referendum, in which said:

“If our Parliament were to make a big decision on a matter such as this, it ought to be owned by the Parliament and not by any particular party.”[2]

A number of people interpreted this statement to mean that he was open to the possibility of a Liberal Party conscience vote, and that he was in fact inviting Coalition backbenchers to start work on a cross-party Marriage Equality Bill, to be introduced in Parliament after the winter recess.

Except that the Prime Minister gave no such invitation, and certainly did not provide an unambiguous commitment – all he did was offer an observation, and one that started with a very big “IF”.

And of course, even if Tony Abbott had given a commitment, we would do well to remember that, based on the long trail of wreckage he has already left in less than two years in the Lodge – and the 40 promises to the Australian people he has already broken[3] – he is arguably the biggest commitment-breaker ever to hold the highest political office in the country, so it would be very difficult to hold him to his ‘word’ in any event.

Events since that statement have also confirmed the substantial obstacles that remain in the way of a Coalition conscience vote. They include:

  • Liberal MPs who oppose a conscience vote within the Liberal Party
  • National MPs who oppose a conscience vote within the National Party
  • Liberal MPs who would like the issue of a conscience vote to be considered by the joint party room, rather than the Liberal Party room alone, because it would stand a better chance of defeat
  • Coalition MPs who have argued that Australia should only recognise LGBTI relationships through civil unions rather than marriage, and
  • Coalition MPs who have advocated the holding of a referendum or plebiscite rather than allowing the matter to be decided by the Parliament.

We have even had the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, suggest that frontbenchers that support marriage equality should resign their Cabinet position if they wanted to advocate on this issue. As quoted in the Australian Financial Review:

“There is very strong support in favour of maintaining the definition of marriages as it is in the marriage act… If you can’t support party policy, like I did with emissions trading, you do the honourable thing and I resigned from the front bench.”[4]

Not to forget the ‘stellar’ contribution of Agriculture Minister, Deputy Leader of the National Party (and future Deputy Prime Minister) Barnaby Joyce’s implication that marriage equality should be resisted because it might damage our cattle and beef exports to South East Asia (a suggestion so embarrassing to Australia it has been reported on around the world)[5].

Perhaps most worrying of all was the reaction of the Prime Minister’s office to the news earlier this month that a cross-party working group had in fact drafted a Marriage Equality Bill, with the aim of consideration by the Liberal Party room, and hopefully the Parliament, in August.

Abbott’s office released the following statement:
“Any member can introduce a private member’s bill into the parliament but they do not come before the joint party room for discussion unless they will be voted on in the parliament.

“It is rare for a private member’s bill to be voted on and any bill would be subject to the usual process. The prime minister’s position remains the same as it has always been and he supports the current policy that marriage is between a man and a woman. The government’s priority is strong economic management and keeping Australians safe.”[6]

There are (at least) three issues of particular concern with this statement:

  1. The reference to the joint party room (rather than Liberal Party room), making a conscience vote less likely to succeed
  2. The reference to parliamentary procedure, hinting that debate on any private member’s Marriage Equality Bill could be blocked by the Selection of Bills Committee (which is dominated by Liberal and National Party MPs who are themselves opposed to LGBTI equality), and
  3. The reference to other priorities (including the economy and national security), indicating that the Prime Minister could oppose the Bill progressing because it would somehow detract from these issues.

All in all, it would be heroic to assume there will inevitably be a conscience vote within the Liberal Party on this issue – and there is indisputably a very real risk that they reject a free vote, with that risk existing irrespective of whatever position the Labor Party adopts at its National Conference later this month.

That’s right – despite some people arguing that the Australian Labor Party should not adopt a binding vote because such a move will automatically prevent the Liberals from adopting a conscience vote, it is unlikely that Labor’s position will be the sole, or even decisive, factor.

A number of Liberal MPs have shown, quite comprehensively, over the past two months that they have their own reasons for opposing a conscience vote, and these reasons exist regardless of what delegates to ALP National Conference choose to do.

And that is entirely logical – after all, if the ALP’s position was so persuasive across the political aisle as to be almost irresistible (as some apparently believe it to be), the Liberals would have adopted a conscience vote on marriage equality at some point in the more than three and a half years Labor has already had one.

Of course, that does not mean that, should the Labor Party adopt a binding vote on marriage equality, and the Liberals subsequently choose to reject a conscience vote, the Liberal Party, and its few remaining moderate MPs, will not try to blame the ALP for this outcome[7].

In fact, that would be the most predictable development in this entire debate – the Party blocking reform would point the finger at anyone, and everyone, but itself in an effort to deflect responsibility for its own actions. It is not even a ‘risk’, but a guarantee.

But that is a political debate, and surely one the Australian Labor Party should be willing to take on.

If, come August, the ALP supports marriage equality with a binding vote, something which is both the right thing to do, and a position which is supported by between two thirds and three quarters of the population, and the Liberal and National Parties, who form the majority of the House of Representatives, oppose marriage equality with their own binding vote, then Labor MPs must be able to apportion blame squarely where it belongs – on Tony Abbott and his colleagues.

And, putting it frankly, if they can’t win that particular political argument, with almost everything stacked in their favour, then perhaps we should sack the entire Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and start again.

We should also acknowledge that there are real and serious risks for the Labor Party in the opposite direction – that choosing to continue with a conscience vote at the National Conference in July brings with it its own dangers.

First, even if the ALP maintains a conscience vote in the hope of enticing the Liberal Party into adopting one, for the reasons outlined above, Liberal (or Coalition) MPs could still refuse, thus rendering marriage equality unachievable this term.

Not only will that leave Labor looking somewhat silly, but, given they will be unable to change their rules until the next National Conference (due in 2018), for the remainder of this term Labor will be left in a position where it too is vulnerable on this issue, because it doesn’t support marriage equality 100%.

Second, even if the ALP maintains a conscience vote, and the Liberal Party adopts one, marriage equality could still fall a handful of votes short when it is considered later in 2015 (or early in 2016).

In these circumstances, it is almost inevitable that people will look to where else those ‘missing’ votes could have come from – and at least some fingers will point in the direction of Labor’s failure to adopt a binding vote.

Indeed, this is something that Katherine Murphy of the Guardian Australia has already written about:

“I’m not quite sure what the panic is, because whether or not same-sex marriage becomes law in this country is 95% in the hands of the Abbott government, and the prime minister is not a supporter of marriage equality.

I say 95% because if the vote in the House of Representatives is as close as I suspect it is, Labor binding its MPs to vote yes to marriage equality could be the extra element to get the proposal over the line. If same-sex marriage eventually comes to a vote, and that vote falls just short, do remember that fact. Bill Shorten has plumped his credentials on this topic, but he’s also effectively killed off a binding vote for Labor on gay marriage” (emphasis added)[8].

Third, failing to adopt a binding vote could seriously harm a new Labor Government should it win the 2016 Federal election. Here’s how:

Marriage equality is defeated this year (either because a conscience vote on both sides falls short, or because the Liberal Party continues to bind against). Possible.

Labor is elected at the 2016 Federal election with a narrow majority (or relying on cross bench support). Possible.

The number of ALP MPs who would exercise any conscience vote against the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians exceeds the size of their overall parliamentary majority. Possible.

The Liberal-National Opposition, now led by Scott Morrison, retreats – even further, if that’s possible – into ‘conservatism’ after losing Government, and binds (or continues to bind) against marriage equality. Possible – and thoroughly terrifying.

And marriage equality is consequently defeated, at least until the 2018 ALP National Conference, which is the next opportunity to change the Party’s rules.

While the above sequence of events is admittedly not the most likely to occur, it is by no means beyond the realms of possibility – and its impact would be devastating.

Because newly-elected Prime Minister Bill Shorten, who personally supported marriage equality so much he moved his own Marriage Equality Bill, and consistently criticised Prime Minister Tony Abbott for refusing to support it, and leading a political party which supports marriage equality in its platform, and being elected to Government with the good will of the population (at least on this issue), would still be unable to deliver this important social reform.

This would make both Prime Minister Shorten, and the Party that he leads, look completely ineffectual – thus frustrating the hell out of the electorate, who would have every right to expect that a new Labor Government would be able to deliver a reform that is, in 2015, already years overdue.

The best way, indeed the only way, to ensure that a newly-elected ALP Government would be able to deliver marriage equality in 2016 is for it to adopt a binding vote at its 2015 National Conference.

Obviously, most of the above discussion is about politics – both small ‘p’, and capital ‘P’ – about internal divisions in the Liberal Party, and what they might do on this issue in coming months, about hypotheticals, and strategy, and about the political risks, on both sides of this debate, for the Australian Labor Party.

This is not to suggest these considerations are what should ultimately guide the delegates in Melbourne on Sunday 26 July when they decide whether to adopt a binding vote – indeed far from it (as I will explain below).

However, it is necessary to discuss these issues in some depth because anyone who asserts that the current ‘politics’ of marriage equality are straightforward – that the ALP must retain its conscience vote so the Liberal Party adopts their own, leading to marriage equality being passed in the second half of 2015 – is wrong.

Even if the Labor Party keeps their conscience vote, there is absolutely no guarantee that the Liberal Party introduces their own. And even if Tony Abbott does grant (or at least accept) a ‘free vote’ inside his Party, it doesn’t necessarily follow that marriage equality will be passed this term.

There is real uncertainty about what happens next – and, as I have detailed above, there are real dangers for the Labor Party in retaining a conscience vote, and hoping (or wishing) that the Liberal Party ‘plays ball’.

In this context, where there is both genuine doubt, and genuine risk, no matter what position the ALP takes, I would argue that delegates should decide the issue on its merits: Is a binding vote in favour of marriage equality the principled position for the Australian Labor Party to adopt?

And the answer to that question must be an unequivocal “YES”.[9]

As a political party based on solidarity and collective action, there are no legitimate arguments to say that the issue of marriage equality is so special, so exceptional, that the ordinary process of ‘binding’ on policy positions should not apply here too.

Indeed, for more than two thirds of the time this issue has been voted on in Federal Parliament, the Australian Labor Party has adopted a binding vote on marriage equality – from August 2004 to December 2011, it bound its MPs and Senators to vote against.

Now that the Labor Party has a platform position in favour of removing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians from the Marriage Act, it is inappropriate, almost offensive, to turn around and say that its removal should be deemed ‘optional’.

As Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek put it so eloquently, when asked about this issue in April, the choice is in fact remarkably clear:

“Do we support legal discrimination against one group in this country? Or do we not?”[10]

And that is the decision that confronts delegates to ALP National Conference in ten days’ time. Not considering the hypothetical: “If we do this, Abbott might do that, and then something else might happen.”

But asking the practical question: “If we support marriage equality, if we genuinely believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should be treated equally under the law, then why should some ALP MPs and Senators be allowed to continue to vote against the rights of their fellow citizens solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status?”

The answer is, obviously, that they should not. And I still hope that is the conclusion that the majority of National Conference delegates reach on Sunday 26 July.

Protesters outside the 2011 ALP National Conference, calling for Labor to support marriage equality, and adopt a binding vote. Only the first half was achieved - in 2015, it's time to finish the job.

Protesters outside the 2011 ALP National Conference in Sydney, calling for Labor to support marriage equality, and to do so through a binding vote. Only the first half was achieved – in 2015, it’s time to finish the job.

PS If you support a binding vote, and are in Melbourne during ALP National Conference, please consider coming along to the rally outside the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, from 1pm on Saturday July 25. Full details here: <https://www.facebook.com/events/343248609218667/ #ItsTimeToBind

[1] “Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality” https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/ ; “4 more arguments against an ALP binding vote on marriage equality, and why they’re wrong too” https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/16/4-more-arguments-against-an-alp-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality-and-why-theyre-wrong-too/

[2] From Sydney Morning Herald, “Same-sex marriage vote should be owned by the Parliament: Tony Abbott” http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/samesex-marriage-vote-should-be-owned-by-the-parliament-tony-abbott-20150527-ghaohc.html

[3] From the webpage “Abbott’s Wreckage” http://sallymcmanus.net/abbotts-wreckage/

[4] “Gay Marriage Causes Coalition Civil War”, 2 July 2015: http://www.afr.com/news/politics/gay-marriage-causes-coalition-civil-war-20150702-gi33uh

[5] From The Independent (UK): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/australian-minister-barnaby-joyce-claims-legalising-samesex-marriage-could-damage-cattle-trading-with-asia-10369540.html and Time: http://time.com/3947537/australia-barnaby-joyce-cattle-gay-same-sex-marriage/

[6] As reported in the Guardian Australia, “Tony Abbott digs in to frustrate any possibility of same-sex marriage vote” 2 July 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/jul/02/tony-abbott-digs-in-to-frustrate-any-posibillity-of-same-sex-marriage-vote

[7] Indeed, gay Liberal Senator Dean Smith has already attempted to make this argument, when Tanya Plibersek was publicly advocating a binding vote in April: http://www.smh.com.au/national/gay-liberal-senator-dean-smith-slams-tanya-plibersek-over-gay-marriage-move-20150427-1mu99l.html

[8] “Tony Abbott digs in to frustrate any possibility of same-sex marriage vote” 2 July 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/jul/02/tony-abbott-digs-in-to-frustrate-any-posibillity-of-same-sex-marriage-vote

[9] Regular readers of this blog know there are large number of reasons why I believe Labor should bind. This post will only cover a few – if you would like to read more, you should start with “Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality”: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, “Plibersek push to make Labor MPs vote for same-sex marriage”, 27 April 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/plibersek-push-to-make-labor-mps-vote-for-samesex-marriage-20150427-1mteon.html

One thought on “Why the Australian Labor Party should still adopt a binding vote on marriage equality

  1. As a clear & logical Human Right ~ the question should be about providing Equality for ALL Australians regardless of Gender or Gender Preference….
    Then the question becomes merely about what needs to be done to a ensure the Human Rights of ALL Australians
    AND ultimately of ALL Peoples of our Planet

    The way we treat the minorities within Communities IS a Reflection of the Quality of The Society
    Ours in Australia is sadly lacking ~ but hey…. Things can be changed for the better 😉


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