Responding to Bill Shorten’s Arguments Against a Binding Vote on Marriage Equality

Last night, just 36 hours from the start of ALP National Conference, the Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece by Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten explaining why he supports a conscience vote on marriage equality[i].

The article itself is short and, based on any objective reading, the arguments he makes for a conscience vote (or rather, against a binding vote), are weak.

So weak, in fact, that it is tempting to assume Mr Shorten is aware there remains a strong chance that National Conference will decide on Sunday afternoon that the ALP should nevertheless bind (whether immediately, or taking effect from the start of the next federal election campaign), and he does not want to appear to be too out of step with the membership on this issue.

Whatever the motivation, in this post I will respond to the three main arguments against a binding vote put forward by Mr Shorten.

1. A binding vote would be difficult for ALP MPs and Senators who oppose marriage equality

Bill says: “I support marriage equality… But I understand that not every Labor MP or party member feels the same way. Some, particularly people of faith, take a different view. I respect this. It’s why I support a free vote on marriage equality.

Solidarity still has a powerful meaning in our party and a binding vote would put a handful of Labor MPs in a very difficult position. Either they vote against their conscience, or they vote against the party they’ve dedicated their working life to serving.”

Response: This may well be true – for a handful of ALP parliamentarians in both chambers the prospect of being compelled to vote for the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, including in the Marriage Act, does raise personal ethical issues for them.

But the problem is, and the key fact that Mr Shorten ignores, is that this dilemma – being compelled to vote for a position with which you do not agree – is not unique to the issue of marriage equality.

Indeed, to paraphrase a slogan from another political party, this is the exact same question faced by every ALP MP, on every single issue, and every single vote, whenever they disagree with the Party’s position – as a member of a political party based on collective action, and bound by the principle of solidarity, does my personal opposition outweigh my overall loyalty to the party?

It is the same question that is asked by ALP members from across the factional divide who find our current policies on refugees (which involve the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees, including LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise them) to be abhorrent.

It is the same question that was asked by ALP members who earlier this year personally opposed the Abbott Government’s metadata legislation – but which was supported by the Federal Opposition. Or who did not support the cuts to single parent payments made by the Labor Government in 2012, or who wanted to shut down the live animal export trade permanently in 2011[ii].

Each of these policy questions raises significant ethical issues for the MPs and Senators who have a different personal view to the overall position of the Party. But, in respect of no other policy was the response of the Party, and Party Leader, to say that this disagreement therefore meant that normal processes, which require parliamentarians to be bound, should not apply.

And Mr Shorten does not make any substantive argument for why the issue of marriage equality should be treated differently to any other issue.

He does make an indirect reference to ‘people of faith’ but, as has been explained previously[iii], that would only be relevant if ALP parliamentarians were being required to vote to change the definition of marriage within their religion – and no marriage equality Bill proposed to date would do any such thing.

Under every proposal, all ministers of religion would be free to continue to reject – or support (remembering that some religious organisations want to be able to marry LGBTI couples) – marriage equality.

All that Labor MPs and Senators are being asked to do is to vote for the equality of all Australians under secular law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status – and their personal faith is not a compelling argument to reject that vote being made binding as is standard operating procedure.

And it is even less compelling when we remember that a binding vote on marriage equality was adopted by the ALP from August 2004 to December 2011 – and that, during this time, all Labor parliamentarians who supported LGBTI equality, including those like Senators Penny Wong and Louise Pratt who were from the LGBTI community themselves, were required to vote against it.

Overall, then, Mr Shorten’s first argument does highlight the fact that supporting marriage equality might be difficult for some individual MPs and Senators – but that is not the same thing as saying that the normal rules of the Australian Labor Party, which ordinarily require binding, should not apply.

2. Labor should not adopt a binding vote because of what Tony Abbott might, or might not, do

Bill says: “I believe the best way to ensure our Parliament passes a definition of marriage which includes, values and respects every Australian relationship is for all representatives, from all parties, to have a free vote… I’m hopeful Tony Abbott will allow his MPs a free vote when Parliament returns, to achieve this outcome.

If Labor gets hung up on procedural argy-bargy, we jeopardise this possibility. Not only is it far more difficult for us to call on Tony Abbott to give his party room a free vote if we bind ourselves, there is also the risk that the Coalition re-commits to binding against marriage equality.”

Response: Mr Shorten is right to highlight the very real risk that Tony Abbott, and Warren Truss, and the political parties that they lead, could continue to bind their parliamentarians to vote against marriage equality. But what he omits to mention is that this risk exists irrespective of whatever delegates to this weekend’s ALP National Conference decide to do.

Even if the Labor Party chooses to retain a conscience vote on marriage equality, in the hope that it will somehow entice the Liberals and Nationals to do the same, there is no guarantee this move will have any influence over them whatsoever.

After all, if the ALP’s position was so influential, then it is reasonable to ask why the Coalition hasn’t adopted a conscience vote during the three and a half years in which Labor has already had one[iv].

Mr Shorten’s argument also seems to suggest that a conscience vote on both sides is numerically the most likely to succeed, when in fact the best chance for passage would be for the Labor Party to adopt a binding vote, and for the Liberal and National Parties to adopt a conscience vote.

As Australian Marriage Equality has repeatedly made clear, even with a conscience vote on both sides, if and when a cross-party marriage equality Bill is considered later this term, it could still fall short.

And that phrase, ‘this term’, is actually the key here. Because the decision whether to adopt a binding vote, or retain a conscience vote, is about far more than the remaining 13 months of this parliamentary cycle.

This debate is also about what policies the Australian Labor Party takes to the next Federal Election, and whether it is able to implement them.

If Mr Shorten wants to be able to stand before the Australian people, with hand on heart, and declare that, if elected, a Labor Government he leads would introduce marriage equality, then the only way in which he would be able to ensure it could be delivered is by adopting a binding vote, right here at this Conference.

The decision for National Conference delegates now is about whether the Australian Labor Party fully supports marriage equality, and ensures that all of its MPs and Senators vote accordingly when it next comes before Parliament.

The decision is also about whether, if that vote fails and we are elected to Government next year, a new Labor Government is able to finally deliver marriage equality to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians who have already waited for far too long.

And it is a decision which is far too important to ‘outsource’ to Tony Abbott, and Warren Truss, and the Liberal and National Party rooms, based on hypotheticals about what they may or may not do.

3. A conscience vote is an inherently better way to achieve reform than a binding vote

Bill says: “Frequently now people speak of marriage equality as an “inevitable” social change. In my experience, there is no such thing as inevitable progress, and worthwhile change is always hard-won. The best way to deliver reform is to bring people together. To build support by finding common ground; through consensus not coercion – not through the force of procedure but through the power of an idea whose time has come.”

Response: To many, the sentiments in this paragraph might seem noble. To me – and, I suspect, to most ordinary members of the Australian Labor Party – this paragraph seems almost bizarre.

After all, Mr Shorten is a former trade union official who became state, and later national, secretary of the Australian Workers Union. And he has been a Labor Party MP for almost eight years, including serving as a Cabinet Minister and now, for almost two years, as Party Leader during Opposition.

In all of those positions and roles he has been part of organisations and bodies that are based on solidarity, whether that involves taking collective action in industrial disputes, or voting collectively to change the nation’s laws.

For him to turn around now and say that the best way to deliver major reform is “through consensus not coercion – not through the force of procedure but through the power of an idea whose time has come” is, in effect, arguing that the entire way in which both the union movement and Australian Labor Party operate is inherently wrong.

Is Mr Shorten genuinely saying that all the legacy reforms passed by Labor Governments, from the introduction of Medicare to the expansion of higher education, from the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act and Sex Discrimination Act to the legislative recognition of native title, and more recently from the repeal of WorkChoices to the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, should have been achieved through conscience votes? Because that is the clear implication of his argument.

To fully realise just how strange, nonsensical even, Mr Shorten’s argument here is, we should consider the major policy which he announced just yesterday morning – a commitment for a 50% renewable energy target by 2030[v].

That would be a major reform – and it is definitely “an idea whose time has come”. By the same logic which he has used to argue against a binding vote on marriage equality, the best way to achieve a 50% RET must be through “consensus not coercion”, meaning Labor parliamentarians should be free to vote against it.

Mr Shorten would probably recoil in horror at that prospect. Well, the rest of us recoil at the double-standard which suggests that the Labor Party can and should bind in order to achieve political, economic, environmental and social change – but that it cannot bind to help achieve change for LGBTI Australians.

So, unless he is going to propose an amendment at this weekend’s Conference to make all policies optional for all Labor Party MPs, he should stop arguing to make just the issue of marriage equality non-binding.

********************

From this discussion, it is clear that none of the three main arguments put forward by Mr Shorten withstand close scrutiny.

After reading, and re-reading, his opinion piece, it is also clear that he fails to grapple with the core of the issue, which is this:

  • Should Labor Party MPs and Senators be free to vote for continued discrimination against LGBTI Australians under secular law?
  • Should our parliamentarians have the so-called ‘right’ to deny human rights to one group in society solely on the basis of who they are?
  • Should ALP caucus members have the option to reject the fundamental equality of their fellow citizens simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status?

The answer to these questions should be, indeed must be, no. And I sincerely hope that the majority of National Conference delegates agree come Sunday afternoon.

Of course, it is incredibly disappointing that the Leader of my political party, Bill Shorten, does not. But he should remember that at the last National Conference the delegates rejected the view of the then Leader, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, that the Party should not change the platform to support marriage equality.

We can, and must, reject his view this time around, and make that platform position binding on ALP MPs and Senators. It’s time to support LGBTI equality 100%. It’s time to bind.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's arguments against a binding vote on marriage equality do not withstand close scrutiny.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s arguments against a binding vote on marriage equality do not withstand close scrutiny.

[i] “Bill Shorten: Why I Support a Free Vote on Gay Marriage”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/bill-shorten-why-i-support-a-free-vote-on-gay-marriage-20150722-gii96f.html

[ii] For more on this issue, see “One of these things is not (treated) like the others” : https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/22/one-of-these-things-is-not-treated-like-the-others/

[iii] See “Why the Australian Labor Party should still adopt a binding vote on marriage equality”: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/07/14/why-the-australian-labor-party-should-still-adopt-a-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality/

[iv] For more on this issue, see “Why the Australian Labor Party should still adopt a binding vote on marriage equality”: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/07/14/why-the-australian-labor-party-should-still-adopt-a-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality/

[v] “Bill Shorten to unveil 50% renewable energy target at Labor conference”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/bill-shorten-to-unveil-50-renewable-energy-target-at-labor-conference-20150721-gih4bp.html

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