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:

[ii] For more on this issue, see “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”:

[iv] For more on this issue, see “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:

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: < #ItsTimeToBind

[1] “Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality” ; “4 more arguments against an ALP binding vote on marriage equality, and why they’re wrong too”

[2] From Sydney Morning Herald, “Same-sex marriage vote should be owned by the Parliament: Tony Abbott”

[3] From the webpage “Abbott’s Wreckage”

[4] “Gay Marriage Causes Coalition Civil War”, 2 July 2015:

[5] From The Independent (UK): and Time:

[6] As reported in the Guardian Australia, “Tony Abbott digs in to frustrate any possibility of same-sex marriage vote” 2 July 2015:

[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:

[8] “Tony Abbott digs in to frustrate any possibility of same-sex marriage vote” 2 July 2015:

[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”:

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, “Plibersek push to make Labor MPs vote for same-sex marriage”, 27 April 2015:

Bill Shorten’s Marriage Equality Bill Second Reading Speech – The Annotated Version

When the Opposition Leader, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, gave the second reading speech on his marriage equality legislation on Monday 1 June, 2015, he omitted to mention a few key points, especially in relation to his ongoing opposition to a binding vote within the Australian Labor Party. Here is my annotated version of his speech, with some suggested additions:

“I move that the bill be read a second time.

The laws of our nation should give us hope. Our laws should tell our children what we believe. Our laws should tell strangers who Australians are. [And the issue of marriage equality tells strangers that the Australian Labor Party is, currently, unwilling to fully support the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.]

Our laws should be a mirror…reflecting our great and generous country and our free, inclusive society. [But please don’t hold that mirror up to the pockets of the Party I lead that are not ‘great and generous’, but are instead mean-spirited and support the exclusion of people from an institution of love on the basis of who they are.]

And our Parliament should be a place where we make things happen rather than sit back and let them happen. On marriage equality, for too long we in this Parliament have been following, not leading. It is within our power to change this. [Despite my speech today, I have no intention of using my influence, and the power of my office as Party Leader, to pursue a binding vote in favour of marriage equality at the upcoming ALP National Conference, because that would be dangerously close to leading, not following.]

This Parliament can change a law that no longer describes modern Australia… and pass a law of which we can all be proud. [Well, most of us anyway – without a binding vote, there will be members of my Party who vote against this issue of fundamental equality, and who, by implication, should be ashamed of their actions.]

Let us delay no more. Let us embrace a definition of marriage that respects, values and includes every Australian. Let us declare, in the house of the Australian people – it is time. The right time to make marriage equality, a reality.

This is a moment bigger than politics. This moment does not distract the nation – it complements our hopes for the future. [And I will not be distracted by frankly ridiculous notions that the Australian Labor Party, should, in the future, treat this issue like nearly every other matter of public policy by having a binding position on it.]

I know all members of Parliament will engage in a respectful and considered debate, and I hope will be able to exercise a free vote. [I sincerely hope that the MPs and Senators within my own Party who oppose the human rights of their fellow citizens simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status will be able to continue to do so.]

I pay tribute to the Member for Sydney, for offering her place on this bill to a member of the Government. Tanya, thank you. [Although my thanks do not extend to you for standing up for the principle of LGBTI equality, and for explaining, persuasively and with conviction, why it demands a binding vote, because it has shown up my own lack of leadership on the subject.]

Your actions, the advocacy of Senator Penny Wong and the goodwill of many across the Parliament, prove that bipartisanship is not the problem here. What matters is the outcome, not who owns it. [I will ensure Labor cannot ‘own it’ because its parliamentarians will remain free to vote against it.]

Madam Speaker, for decades, the march to equality has been led by remarkable Australians from every part of our country and all walks of life.

Governments from both sides of politics have delivered real progress too. The Fraser Government passed Whitlam law, decriminalising homosexuality in Commonwealth territories, following Don Dunstan’s lead in South Australia.

Paul Keating lifted the ban on Australians who identified as gay serving in our military. The Rudd and Gillard governments removed discrimination against same-sex couples from more than 80 laws.

In Victoria, the Napthine Government expunged the records of people who were charged under long-repealed homosexuality offences. Changing the Marriage Act is the next, overdue step in the path to true equality. [You didn’t really expect me to mention in this speech the ALP’s role in voting for the Howard Government’s homophobic ban on marriage equality in 2004, or the fact that its MPs and Senators were collectively bound to oppose it for the following seven and a half years,  did you?]

Madam Speaker, I’m a twin – it’s a special thing, growing up, an inseparable bond. But for other twins where one twin is gay and the other is not, the Marriage Act is the only Australian law that separates siblings.

It’s a double standard which divides families, and our country. It’s not fair and it’s not who we are. And it should change. [Although what I don’t propose to change are the rules of my Party which allow Senator J Collins to vote against it, while MP J Collins votes in favour, which mean Senator S Conroy can vote in the opposite direction to MP P Conroy, which result in Senator D O’Neill rejecting LGBTI equality even while MP C O’Neill advocates for it, and which allow Senators K Gallagher and A Gallacher’s votes to cancel each other out. That double standard will remain long after July’s ALP National Conference if I have my way.]

Currently, marriage is defined as: ‘the union of a man and a woman.” Those eight words maintain a fiction that any other relationship is somehow inferior. [A fiction which some Labor parliamentarians will be free to continue, not just to believe, but to actively try to impose on their fellow citizens.]

Our legislation proposes a new definition: ‘the union of two people.’ And it allows celebrants the choice of referring to ‘partners’, as well as husband and wife.

To some, this may seem a small gesture. In truth, this means so much, to so many. To all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, we offer change that says: your relationship is equal under the law. [Please note, however, that conditions DO apply: you can only redeem this offer in the electorate offices of about four fifths of ALP MPs and Senators around the country.]

To the parents, children, friends and families of same-sex partners, just as the people you love are equal and valuable in your eyes, their relationship should be equal and valuable in the eyes of our law. To same-sex couples, we offer the right to celebrate your love with the public measure of devotion: marriage.

When someone has found not just another person they can live with, but a person they can’t live without, then they should have the same right to the true qualities of a bond that runs deeper than any law. [Unlike the bonds of a political party, with a long history of solidarity and collective action, which I am prepared to ignore in order to allow some parliamentarians to cast their votes against your right to marriage.]

The same joy and sacrifice. The same care and compassion. The same rights and responsibilities. And we say to all young gay people. We are proud of you, for who you are. You belong. [Although some of us are less proud of you than others, and some of us don’t think you belong in a wedding ceremony at all.]

We say to you, you have a right to the same hopes, dreams and opportunities as every other Australian including the right to marry the person you love. [But individual ALP parliamentarians also have the right to crush those hopes and dreams, and limit those opportunities, solely because of who you are.]

In removing discrimination from our country’s laws, we strive to eliminate prejudice from our people’s lives. [Just not entirely eliminating it from our caucus room.]

Let’s be honest. Casual, unthinking discrimination and deliberate, malicious homophobia alike, are still far too common in our conversations. In our schoolyards, our workplaces and our sporting clubs…and even, occasionally, our Parliament too.

This affects community, neighbourliness, harmony and mental health in our cities and especially our regions and the bush where physical remoteness can aggravate a sense of isolation.

We know two out of five young Australians who are gay have thought about self-harm or suicide. Two out of every five. [We also know that about one out of every five ALP parliamentarians will likely be voting against the equal rights of LGBTI people, and sending the message that who you are is less than, worse than, cisgender heterosexual people.]

We know a young Australian who identifies as gay is six times more likely to consider taking their own life, compared to their sibling, classmate, colleague or teammate. Six times.

When I was finishing school in the 1980s, youth suicide was still a taboo topic. I can remember hearing of the passing of young men, and no-one spoke of how they died. I can close my eyes and see their faces, forever young.

And I wonder now, if for some, the stigma and the struggle of imagining a future, lonely, isolated, treated differently was too much to bear. Marriage equality says to young people who identify as gay, you are never alone. You belong. [I am sincere in this belief, and about the need to address youth LGBTI-related mental health issues, and the tragedy of suicide. I just can’t sincerely say I am doing everything in my power to support marriage equality.]

This is an act of fairness for all ages. On the weekend, I spoke with Sandra Yates, from Devonport in Tassie. Like hundreds of other Australian couples, she and her partner Lee Bransden have been forced to travel to New Zealand to marry.

Sandra and Lee had hoped to marry at home surrounded by friends and family but Lee is terminally ill, and has been told she only has weeks to live. Their community raised money to fund their trip and fulfill their dream.

They are thrilled to be married…and sad it couldn’t happen here, in the country they love. [And I am genuinely sad about this situation, too – just not enough to try to override the right of Chris (Hayes) & Joe (Bullock) to vote against Sandra & Lee.]

Lee’s voice should be heard in this place: “Please, help switch on the light for same-sex couples and take us out of the darkness.” [But don’t make the light too bright, lest it expose the darkness in the hearts and minds of some of our MPs and Senators.]

Lee, Sandra, you, your friends and families should not have to wait one day longer for recognition. And this legislation will ensure that same-sex marriages, recognised in another country, are recognised here.

A law that forces our citizens to travel overseas, or to the grounds of another nation’s embassy, to have their relationships recognised is a law not worth keeping. [Unless enough individual parliamentarians think it is worth keeping, in which case, well, I guess that’s fine by me.]

I have not made a habit of speaking publicly about my faith, and I do not seek to preach to others today. I do believe in God and I do believe in marriage equality. For me, there is nothing contradictory about extending love, compassion, charity and respect beyond heterosexual Australia.

I understand, that for many people of different faiths, this is a complex question, I respect this. It is why I support a free vote. [Let’s be honest again, while exactly zero of the many Bills proposing marriage equality to date impose any obligation on religions, or religious organisations, to recognise marriage equality, I am willing to allow individual MPs and Senators within the Labor Party to attempt to impose their own religious definition of marriage onto 23 million other Australians. Their personal opinions are clearly more important than the freedom of religion, and from religion, of everyone else.]

And why this legislation makes it clear that no minister of religion can be compelled, or is obliged, to conduct a particular marriage…including one where two people are of the same sex. All ask in return that this respect be mutual.

Just as churches, mosques, temples and synagogues of all faiths and traditions will be free to choose if they consecrate same sex marriages. Let the same respect allow Australians to freely choose who they marry, without vilification or judgment. [Unfortunately, I know that this respect will not be mutual within my own Party. There will be some ALP parliamentarians who will continue to judge, and in some cases vilify, LGBTI-relationships as second class – and, no, I am not prepared to directly challenge them, and their outdated beliefs, by seeking to bind them to vote in favour.]

So often in our history, Australia has led the world in social and economic progress. The right to vote, pensions, the eight-hour day. Our healthcare and superannuation systems are among the best in the world. But on marriage equality, we have fallen behind. [And my own Party has played its part in this state of affairs, both in the good, and also in the bad.]

Like so many Australians, two Sunday mornings ago, when I first heard the result of the Irish referendum I thought: if the Irish can do it, why can’t we? How can Ireland, New Zealand, 37 US States, England, Scotland, South Africa and Canada and Brazil, Iceland and Uruguay be ahead of us? [Of course this is a rhetorical question only – please don’t point out that, if the ALP had adopted a binding vote in 2011, marriage equality would have passed three years ago, and this entire debate now would, thankfully, seem faintly ridiculous.]

Twenty countries have already recognised the merit of marriage equality. I am confident Australia will. [But without a binding vote, I cannot confidently say that a newly-elected Labor Government under me would definitely be able to pass it.]

I don’t want us to wait, any longer. We cannot assume this change is inevitable. We cannot imagine it will just happen. We, the 44th Parliament, we have to step up, to rise to the moment. [Unless that involves stepping up by voting for equality, 100%, in which case I say, ‘yeah, nah’.]

Today, is neither the beginning, nor the end, of the journey to marriage equality. [The next logical step on my side of the political aisle would be the adoption of a binding vote at the ALP National Conference in July, although I have already made it clear I do not want that to happen.]

But I hope…with goodwill on all sides, with co-operation, with respect for one another this can be a historic step forward. Given a free vote, I believe this Parliament is ready for a definition of marriage which reflects the modern, inclusive and egalitarian Australia we love. [It would of course be even more ‘ready’ with an extra half-dozen or more votes in favour of change in both chambers – and, if it falls short by that margin or less later in the year, then I will have to accept at least some of the responsibility for that.]

We are ready to be as generous and kind-hearted as the Australians who trust us. Millions of Australians have waited long enough for this act of justice and inclusion. [And I am proud to say a large majority of the Party I lead will vote to deliver it – expect of course for those who don’t. They’ll be free to continue to support injustice and exclusion, on the basis of their personal opinion.]

The opportunity of a generation is before us now. The moment is here. Let this law reflect the nation we want to see in the mirror: generous, smart, modern, diverse, honest and, above all, equal. Let’s switch on the light. [The light has a dimmer switch installed, however, and its brightness is reduced by the proportion of ALP MPs and Senators who vote no. Until we have a binding vote on LGBTI human rights, our Party’s famous ‘light on the hill’ will shine less brightly for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.]

Let’s make 2015, the year when Australia embraces marriage equality. Let’s make it happen, together. It’s time. [Please, Tony, please, help pass marriage equality this year, because if it doesn’t succeed then people might question why I didn’t do everything I could to support it. If I did I would be writing a very different kind of speech, to deliver at the ALP National Conference in 6 weeks’ time, one that ended with a much stronger invocation of Gough’s message of hope: It’s Time. It’s Time to Bind.]

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who personally supports marriage equality, but opposes making that position binding on his Labor Party colleagues.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who personally supports marriage equality, but opposes making that position binding on his Labor Party colleagues, unlike nearly every other public policy issue on which the ALP does adopt a binding vote.

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:

[ii] Full text of Mr Albanese’s constituency statement here:

[iii] From the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April, “Plibersek push to make Labor MPs vote for same-sex marriage”:

[iv] To view Senator Faulkner’s 2011 National Conference Speech, go here:

[v] Full text of Prime Minister Gillard’s speech against a binding vote at the 2011 ALP National Conference here:

[vi] From the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Marriages and Divorces, Australia:

An LGBTI Agenda – Submission on Draft ALP National Platform 2015

The following is my personal submission in response to the National Platform – Consultation Draft of the Australian Labor Party, released ahead of the 2015 National Conference in Melbourne in July.

While, as an individual, I am obviously concerned about a wide range of issues, including health, education, workers’ rights and climate change, this submission focuses on issues relating to the equality and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

In this respect, despite the inclusion of the following statement in Chapter 1: Labor’s Enduring Values: “[w]e believe in equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, in their daily lives and under the law” (on page 9), and a number of welcome commitments throughout the document (including the strong statement relating to international LGBTI rights, in Chapter 11: Australia’s place in a changing world, at paragraph 31 on page 206), there remain several areas where the National Platform could better deliver on the Party’s promise of LGBTI equality.

In this submission I will make a range of recommendations to improve the Platform with respect to LGBTI issues, and, where relevant, include an explanation of why each change is required. This includes recommendations with respect to intersex issues (based on the recommendations made by OII Australia) and concerning refugee issues (based on the recommendations made by Labor for Refugees, with two additional proposals).

I will also make two recommendations with respect to the Party’s Rules, which will also be debated at the National Conference, and which directly relate to LGBTI equality.

Thank you for the opportunity to make this submission, and for considering its contents.

Alastair Lawrie

Remove religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws

Recommendation 1: In Chapter 9: A fair go for all, under the heading “Removing discrimination”, on page 167 after paragraph 186, add the following:

“Labor will support the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people not to be discriminated against by strengthening the protections currently contained in the Sex Discrimination Act.

Labor will remove the extremely broad exceptions which are granted to religious organisations in sub-section 37(1)(d) of the Act, and to religious schools in section 38, because LGBT people deserve the right not to be discriminated against in the public sphere, which includes health, education, aged care and other community services.”


I have included this recommendation first both because I believe it will likely be the last major LGBTI law reform to be achieved in Australia, and because there are multiple references to the right to non-discrimination, including in the workplace, which are scattered throughout the National Platform – Consultation Draft (for example, in Chapter 5: Decent jobs with fair pay and conditions, at paragraph 21 on page 80: “Labor believes in protecting people from discrimination in obtaining and keeping employment” and in Chapter 10: Strong democracy and effective government, at paragraph 58 on page 194: “[s]trengthen laws and expand programs against discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”)

If these references are to mean anything – if Labor is genuine about tackling the discrimination which is all-too-frequently experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – then the Sex Discrimination Act must be amended to ensure LGBT people cannot be discriminated against either as employees, or as people accessing services, across a wide range of the public sphere (health, education, community services, and aged care – as employees only, see below).

The exceptions which would remain in sub-section 37(1) of the Sex Discrimination Act would guarantee that employment within religious bodies like churches, but not in schools, hospitals or other community services, would remain exempt from the requirement not to discriminate, as would the conduct of religious ceremonies, thereby retaining the fundamental freedom of religion.

[Note: The recommendation relates only to LGBT and not LGBTI discrimination because the religious exceptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act do not operate with respect to intersex status. Nevertheless, it should be highlighted that all state and territory anti-discrimination laws, outside Tasmania, also need to be amended to include intersex status as a protected attribute in the same way as the historic Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.]

Further improve LGBTI equality in aged care services

Recommendation 2: Retain the commitment to LGBTI inclusion in aged care services, as set out in Chapter 6: New opportunities for an ageing Australia, at paragraph 35 on page 95, but add an additional point:

“To help promote a genuinely inclusive aged care environment, Labor will remove exceptions from anti-discrimination law which currently allow religious-operated aged care facilities to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.”


The previous Federal Labor Government had a strong record in LGBTI aged care, in delivering the historic first-ever National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy, and in ensuring that, under the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 LGBTI people accessing aged care services would have protection from discrimination.

However, in order to create a genuinely inclusive environment in aged care facilities, and to respect the rights of LGBT employees in the aged care sector, these protections should be expanded to also cover employees (noting that intersex employees should already be covered by the existing law).

Support programs to prevent bullying and harassment of LGBTI students

Recommendation 3: In Chapter 7: A world-class education for all Australians, amend paragraph 10 on page 99 to read:

“The right to education includes an environment free from bullying and harassment, including racist, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic bullying and harassment”, and insert a new paragraph in the same Chapter:

“Labor will continue to support and fund national programs to address homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in schools.”


The language change to paragraph 10 is important because, while homophobia is sometimes used as a catch-all for all forms of discrimination against LGBTI people, it is best practice, more accurate and more inclusive to also include references to biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

The previous Federal Labor Government provided initial funding to the National Safe Schools Program in 2013, which is a valuable initiative in addressing LGBTI harassment and bullying, and improving LGBTI inclusion. Given the ongoing challenges in this area, a new Labor Government should commit to continue to support programs like Safe Schools.

Ensure LGBTI content is included in the National Health & Physical Education Curriculum

Recommendation 4: In Chapter 7, after paragraph 37 on page 103, insert a new paragraph:

“Labor acknowledges that the curriculum development process has produced a National Health & Physical Education (HPE) Curriculum that excludes content that is vital to meet the needs of LGBTI students and young people. Labor commits to reviewing the HPE curriculum and producing a new HPE curriculum, that genuinely includes LGBTI students and content, as well as enhanced and inclusive sexual health education.”


Chapter 7: A world-class education for all Australians notes, at paragraph 6 on page 98, that “[e]very student in every school should have access to a quality education that meets their individual needs.”

Unfortunately, the National HPE Curriculum that has been developed under successive Governments fails to meet the needs of LGBTI students. It does not even use the words lesbian, gay or bisexual (and does not use the words transgender or intersex in the year level descriptions which set out what is to be taught), and, despite an ‘aspirational statement’ about student diversity, does not guarantee that content relevant to their needs will be taught in classrooms around the country.

The HPE curriculum also fails to ensure that all students, including LGBTI students, will receive comprehensive and inclusive sexual health education. Providing comprehensive sexual health education is also necessary to take action on the statement in Chapter 8: A health system for all, at paragraph 103 on page 132, that “[l]abor recognises the importance of renewing efforts to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, sexually-transmitted infections, and blood borne viruses, in partnership with the non-government organisation sector and driven by expert evidence.”

Labor should commit to rectifying these glaring omissions (relating to LGBTI students and content, and sexual health education) in the HPE curriculum.

Abolish the National School Chaplaincy Programme

Recommendation 5: In Chapter 7, after paragraph 44 on page 103, insert a new paragraph:

“Labor will abolish the National School Chaplaincy Programme and redirect moneys saved to support government schooling.”


In Chapter 7, paragraph 44 on page 44 starts: “[e]very Australian in every community should have access to high-quality free, secular government schooling.”

The National School Chaplaincy Programme (NSCP), which involves employing people in government (and non-government) schools based on religious affiliation, is in direct contravention of this principle and is a serious misallocation of public resources.

Abolishing the NSCP will:

  • Recommit the Labor Party to supporting genuinely ‘free & secular’ education,
  • Provide an additional $250 million, over four years, to support government schooling, and
  • Remove the risk which some parts of the National School Chaplaincy Programme present to LGBTI students and young people.

Remove out-of-pocket medical expenses for transgender Australians

Recommendation 6: In Chapter 8: A health system for all, insert a new paragraph:

“Labor acknowledges the right of all Australians, including transgender and gender diverse people, to live their gender identity. For many, this includes accessing specialist health services and for some people can involve gender affirmation surgery. Cost should not be a barrier to accessing these services and/or surgery, and Labor commits to removing, wherever possible, out-of-pocket health expenses for transgender people incurred in relation to their gender identity.”


In Chapter 8, at paragraph 9 on page 113, it says “[a] fairer and more equitable society is one in which all Australians are able to access high-quality and affordable health care, including any necessary medicines, on the basis of health care need, not their capacity to pay.” It is difficult to see a better application of this principle than in removing out-of-pocket expenses for transgender Australians in accessing health services and/or gender affirmation surgery, incurred in relation to their gender identity.

This goes beyond the commitment at paragraph 78 on page 127 (“[c]ontinue to ensure that Medicare and the PBS supports anti-discriminatory policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians and that same sex couples and their families are not discriminated against in their access to Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme”), because this commitment is about more than simply ‘non-discrimination’, it is about removing price barriers to essential services.

Improve mental health support for LGBTI people, including LGBTI young people

Recommendation 7: In Chapter 8, at paragraph 74 on page 126, amend the last dot point to read:

  • “Act to reduce the rate of youth suicide in rural communities, especially among young men, young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people” and

amend the third dot point at paragraph 78 on page 127 to read:

  • “Continue to support programs aimed at prevention of suicide, and for improved mental health, for high risk groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.”


The first amendment is to ensure that any specific regional, rural and remote health policies which are aimed to reducing youth suicide should explicitly include LGBTI young people in these regions as a high-risk group.

The second amendment is recognition that mental health issues for LGBTI people are bigger than ‘just’ suicide prevention, and must include programs for improved mental health more generally.

Support programs to address LGBT homelessness

Recommendation 8: In Chapter 9: A fair go for all, under heading “Homelessness” on page 156, add the following:

“Labor acknowledges the young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are at significantly higher risk of homelessness, and commits to support dedicated services aimed at addressing this issue.”


Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth experience much greater rates of homelessness than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts. This is in part caused by familial rejection, through challenges posed by school-based, or societal, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, as well as other factors.

Given the specific causes of LGBT youth homelessness, and the need for cultural sensitivity in responding to the needs of homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people, Labor should support specific programs to deal with this issue.

[Note: I am unaware of research on intersex youth homelessness. Obviously, if such research exists, intersex young people should be added to this recommendation.]

Improve recognition of LGBTI parents in domestic law

Recommendation 9: In Chapter 9: A fair go for all, after paragraph 172 on page 165, add the following:

“Labor will seek national agreement on the recognition of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex parents, based on the principle that LGBTI-inclusive couples should be able to access assisted reproductive technology, to adopt, and to enter into domestic surrogacy arrangements, on an equal basis to cisgender heterosexual couples in every Australian State and Territory.”


LGBTI-inclusive families continue to confront a patch-work of different laws around the country, with their ability to lawfully found a family dependent upon where they live.

A newly-elected Labor Government should seek to end this unacceptable situation, and pursue national agreement on consistent recognition of parenting laws, which do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Ensure LGBTI parents have equality in inter-country adoption

Recommendation 10: In Chapter 9, after paragraph 172 on page 165, also add the following:

“Where adoption arrangements already exist between Australia and other countries, Labor will seek to ensure these arrangements are expanded to allow for inter-country adoption by LGBTI parents on an equal basis to cisgender heterosexual people.

Where Australia seeks to enter into new inter-country adoption arrangements, Labor will only sign such arrangements if they treat LGBTI parents equally.”


The inter-country adoption arrangement between Australia and South Africa, negotiated in 2014, is the first Australian agreement which allows for LGBTI couples to adopt on an equal basis to non-LGBTI couples.

There is no reason why existing inter-country adoption arrangements should not be renegotiated by a newly-elected Labor Government to treat Australian couples equally irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, or why the Australian Government should enter into any new agreements unless they are non-discriminatory on the basis of these attributes.

[Note: This is neither an endorsement nor repudiation of the practice of inter-country adoption, merely a resolution which seeks to ensure that, where it exists, it must treat lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians fairly.]

Improve LGBTI Inclusion in Sport

Recommendation 11: In Chapter 9: A Fair go for all, under the heading “Sport”, on page 178, after paragraph 265, insert the following paragraphs:

  • “Labor acknowledges the impact of homophobia and biphobia in sport, both on and off the field, and is committed to improving the inclusion of lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes and spectators.
  • Labor acknowledges the serious discrimination experienced by transgender participants in sport, as well as by transgender people off the field, and will work with the Australian Human Rights Commission on measures to address this discrimination.
  • Labor also acknowledges the serious discrimination experienced by intersex athletes, and especially women athletes with intersex variations, as well as intersex people off the field, and will also work with the Australian Human Rights Commission on measures to address this discrimination.”


Recent work, by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Out on the Fields and other organisations, has demonstrated the significant issues surrounding homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in sport. There has already been some work to address homophobia and biphobia, on and off the field, and this work should continue (and be supported).

However, the issues which confront transgender and intersex athletes are greater and, to a large extent, remain unaddressed. These specific challenges should be prioritised by the AHRC and others in coming years, to achieve acceptance for all people in sport, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Appoint a Spokesperson for LGBTI Equality

Recommendation 12: In Chapter 10: Strong democracy and effective government, on page 194 under the heading “LGBTI place in a stronger democracy”, add the following:

“Labor will appoint a spokesperson for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex equality and, in Government, will establish an office for LGBTI equality within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.”


Federal Labor should follow the lead of the recently elected Victorian Labor Government, which has appointed both the first ever Australian Minister for Equality, the Hon Martin Foley MP, and established an Office for Equality within the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet.

These moves help to ensure that LGBTI issues have a central point of coordination within Government, and are necessary to prevent LGBTI issues from being left off the political agenda – something which still happens far too often.

Establish an LGBTI Ministerial Advisory Committee

Recommendation 13: In Chapter 10, on page 194, amend the last dot point of paragraph 58 to read:

“Support and engage with communities and stakeholders to provide input into government decision-making, and establish a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex ministerial advisory committee.”


There is no need for the equivocation which is currently contained in the National Platform – Consultation Draft on this issue (which reads “including consideration of a … ministerial advisory committee”). This should simply be done, and, together with the appointment of a Spokesperson for LGBTI Equality and Office for LGBTI Equality (recommended above) would provide the overall framework for effective, ongoing engagement between a Labor Government and the LGBTI community.

Appoint a Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission

Recommendation 14: In Chapter 10, on page 194 under heading “LGBTI place in a stronger democracy”, add the following:

“Labor will amend the Sex Discrimination Act to establish a stand-alone Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status issues, with equivalent powers, responsibilities and funding to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner.”


There is currently no statutory figure within the Australian Human Rights Commission with responsibility for LGBTI issues – instead, these functions are performed on a part-time basis by the Human Rights Commissioner (aka the ‘Freedoms Commissioner’) Tim Wilson.

LGBTI issues, and homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination, are sufficiently serious to warrant the establishment of a stand-alone Commissioner, with similar powers, responsibilities and funding to the existing Sex Discrimination Commissioner (and this would again match the policies of the recently-elected Victorian Labor Government).

Introduce LGBTI Anti-Vilification Protections

Recommendation 15: In Chapter 10: Strong democracy and effective government, at paragraph 96 on page 199, amend the paragraph to read:

“Labor also recognises that homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic harassment by the written or spoken word causes actual harm, not mere offence, to people with a history of suffering discrimination and prejudice, and particular harm to young same-sex attracted, gender-questioning and intersex people, and considers such harmful harassment is an unacceptable abuse of the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech and must be subject to effective sanctions. As such, Labor will introduce anti-vilification protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, which are based on and equivalent to existing racial vilification protections in the Racial Discrimination Act.”


The discussion at paragraphs 95 and 96 is already strong, noting that “Labor stood with the community to successfully oppose the Government’s attack on the Racial Discrimination Act” as well as acknowledging the harms of homophobic harassment, particularly on vulnerable young people.

However, the commitment could be made stronger, both to be more inclusive (by genuinely include bisexual, transgender and intersex people), and to contain a clear and specific commitment to introduce anti-vilification laws. After all, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia are just as offensive, and harmful, as racism –which means LGBTI Australians also deserve the same protections under the law.

Include LGBTI people in foreign aid

Recommendation 16: In Chapter 11: Australia’s place in a changing world, at paragraph 62 on page 210, amend the paragraph to read:

“Labor’s overseas aid efforts will focus on advancing human rights while addressing important development challenges, including ensuring people have the opportunity to lead healthy and prosperous lives regardless of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, ethnicity, religion or cultural beliefs and with access to shelter, education food and clean water, health and sanitation, and emergency services support.”


This paragraph on foreign aid should be amended to include LGBTI people to match the strong statement on support for international LGBTI human rights, which is included at paragraph 31 on page 206 of the same Chapter.

Intersex Recommendations

I support the recommendations made by OII Australia (Organisation Intersex International Australia) in response to the National Platform – Consultation Draft, namely (renumbered here):

Recommendation 17: Inclusion of “intersex status” Change each instance of “sexual orientation and gender identity” to “sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status” throughout the document.

Recommendation 18: Add specific content about intersex health and human rights Add content on intersex health to the section on “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex health”, including the following objectives:

  • The deferral of non-necessary medical intervention on infants and children with intersex variations until such times as the person concerned can give informed consent.
  • The prohibition of modifications to sex characteristics undertaken for social rationales, without informed consent.
  • Ensuring that intersex persons’ right not to undergo sex assignment treatment is respected.

Recommendation 19: Create a specific institutional framework In “LGBTI place in a stronger democracy”, remove references to intersex people in discussion about a National Gender Centre. In place of this, add to the section on “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex health” the following:

  • Fund national intersex-led organisations to provide support to intersex persons and their families, and advocate on intersex issues.

Recommendation 20: End PBS and Medicare discrimination In paragraph 78, recognise that current access to PBS and Medicare remains discriminatory in some contexts. Examples include access to testosterone by women with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, and other people with gender markers other than male.

Recommendation 21: End discrimination against intersex women athletes Paragraph 62 should include a commitment to end discrimination against women athletes with intersex variations.

Recommendation 22: Ensure consent and proportionality in improvements to sex or gender markers on identification documents In paragraph 62:

  • Ensure proportionality in the use of sex and gender markers on official documents so that any presence of such markers fulfils a genuine and proportionate need.
  • Ensure that all people with intersex variations are able to exercise autonomy regarding sex/gender markers, and obtain identification options that match their sex characteristics and/or gender identities, as preferred.

As indicated above, I support all of these recommendations (and have incorporated the sport recommendation in my own recommendations, earlier). However, I would like to particularly emphasise OII recommendation 2 (renumbered as recommendation 18 here), which seeks to end the gross violations of human rights which were highlighted by the Senate Community Affairs Committee’s report on “Involuntary or coerced sterilization of intersex people in Australia” in October 2013, and also to note that the failure of Governments to act on these recommendations, almost two years later, should be a national scandal.

Refugee Recommendations

I support all of the recommendations made by Labor for Refugees.

Recommendation 23: In particular, I support their recommendation to amend Chapter 9: A fair go for all, paragraph 225 at page 173, by deleting “To support Australia’s strong border security regime, Labor will maintain:

  • An architecture of excised offshore places; and
  • The non statutory processing on Christmas Island of persons who arrive unauthorised at an excised place, except where other arrangements are entered into under bilateral and regional arrangements”

and replacing it with the following:

  • “Labor will dismantle the architecture of excision and end the associated non-statutory processing or applications for protections visas.
  • Labor will close the detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island.”

Explanation I am opposed to the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees, and believe that the system of offshore detention centres, in Nauru and Manus Island, and the policy of resettlement in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, is cruel and inhumane, and a gross violation of the human rights of people who are simply seeking Australia’s protection.

I am also opposed to these policies as an LGBTI advocate and activist, and note that male homosexuality is currently criminalised by both the Nauru and Papua New Guinea Governments. This makes these environments unsafe for any refugee who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.

As such, if the above Labor for Refugees recommendation with respect to paragraph 225 is not agreed, I would propose the following recommendation:

Recommendation 24: “To add to Chapter 9: A fair go for all: Labor will not detain, process or resettle lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex refugees in countries which have criminal laws against any of these communities as it makes these places unsafe environments for all of them.”

Irrespective of whether the original or alternative recommendations (or neither) are adopted, I would also make the following additional recommendation:

Recommendation 25: “To add to Chapter 9: A fair go for all: Labor will not return lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender of intersex refugees to countries which have criminal laws against any of these communities as it makes these places unsafe environments for all of them.”

Changes to the Party Rules

1. Pre-selection of LGBTI candidates

Rule Change 1: The Australian Labor Party Rules should be amended to include the following:

“Labor aims to improve the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in the nation’s parliaments. As such, Labor aims to pre-select a minimum of 2% of candidates who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex for the next Federal Election, scheduled for 2016.

This equates to a minimum of 3 candidates for the House of Representatives (out of 150), and 1 candidate for the Senate (out of a maximum of 40). If there is a double dissolution election, this would increase to a minimum of 2 candidates for the Senate.

Of the pre-selected candidates, at least half should be in ‘winnable’ seats and/or positions – equating to at least 2 candidates in total at a normal election, and at least 3 candidates in total at a double dissolution election.

If Labor does not meet these targets at the Federal Election scheduled for 2016, the Party President and National Policy Forum are instructed to jointly prepare more substantive Rules changes, to be brought to the next National Conference, establishing a system of affirmative action rules for LGBTI candidates in Federal, State and Territory Elections.

If the Party President and National Policy Forum are unable to reach agreement on proposed Rules, they are required to each bring forward proposed Rules changes on this subject for the consideration of National Conference.”


There has never been an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex Member of the House of Representatives. From any political Party. And there has never been an identified transgender or intersex member of either chamber.

The Labor Party has also only ever had two out LGBTI Senators. There is currently only one identified LGBTI member of a Federal ALP caucus of 80. This stands in marked contrast to comparable Parliaments in Western democracies – with at least 32 lesbian, gay and bisexual MPs elected in the recent UK election.

The Opposition Leader, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, was correct to identify the historic under-representation of LGBTI people in Parliament as an issue when he ran for Party Leader in September and October 2013, and he was right to suggest that targets and/or quotas should be considered as a possible solution to the marginalisation of LGBTI people from elected politics in Australia.

This proposal is an interim step, announcing clear goals for the 2016 Federal Election, targets which, at 2%, could be described as incredibly modest. However, if the ALP is unable to meet even these modest targets then the Party President and National Policy Forum should be required to prepare further Rules changes, including affirmative action rules for LGBTI candidates, to be presented to the next ALP National Conference, and, if they are unable to agree, to bring forward two sets of proposals.

[Note: This is not to preclude other proposals for increased representation of different under-represented groups in Parliament, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, especially given the Australian Labor Party has still only ever had one indigenous member of Federal Parliament.]

2. Introduce a binding vote for Marriage Equality

Rule Change 2: Abolish the following paragraph at page 262 of the current ALP Platform and Rules:

“Same sex marriage Conference resolves that the matter of same sex marriage can be freely debated at any state or federal forum of the Australian Labor Party, but any decision reached is not binding on any member of the Party.”


The existing Platform’s policy commitment to marriage equality, and the proposed policy commitment in the National Platform – Consultation Draft (in Chapter 9: A fair go for all, at paragraph 190 on page 167: “Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples irrespective of sex who have a mutual commitment to a shared life”) is, of course, welcome.

However, this commitment is undermined by Rules which effectively make an issue of fundamental equality and human rights ‘optional’ for Labor MPs and Senators. This is wrong in principle, it is wrong for a Party based on solidarity and collective action, and it is a position which has actively wronged Australia’s LGBTI community, by further delaying a reform which, had the 2011 National Conference made the right decision, should have been passed in 2012.

It’s time the ALP acknowledged these wrongs, by removing the conscience vote on this issue from the Party’s Rules and adopting a binding vote in favour of marriage equality. #ItsTimeToBind

ALP Party President, and new Senator for NSW, Jenny McAllister, who is co-ordinating the review of the ALP Platform.

ALP Party President, and new Senator for NSW, Jenny McAllister, who is co-ordinating the review of the ALP Platform.

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” ( )

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: ).

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: ).

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 was perhaps the most explicit on this theme:

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 ( ).

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 ( ).

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 ( ):

“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 ( ). 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?” ( ) 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:

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: ).

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 ( ), 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 ( ), 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 ( ), 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.

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.

2 Additional Arguments Against an ALP Binding Vote on Marriage Equality… And Why They’re Wrong As Well

I thought I had already debunked most of the major arguments that our opponents could be expected to use against a binding vote ahead of ALP National Conference in two of my previous posts:


But that was before I had the misfortune of reading Barrie Cassidy’s intellectually malnourished opinion piece on the ABC’s The Drum website on Friday, 1 May (“Why Plibersek’s Gay Marriage Pitch Will Fail”: ).

Now, I don’t have time to fully rebut all of the silly things that Mr Cassidy wrote (including his unwarranted smear, linking Ms Plibersek’s long-standing support for marriage equality to base electoral considerations), but there are a couple of arguments which deserve a response, especially because they are likely to be raised by others in the lead-up to July’s conference.

  1. The ALP should not ‘waste time’ discussing a binding vote because it is a distraction from other issues

This is a variation of an argument that is commonly used against marriage equality per se: and that is that marriage equality is either not as important as, or does not affect as many people as, other issues (like health, or jobs, or education, or climate change etc etc etc), and therefore we should not use ‘valuable time’ discussing it. Instead, we can apparently get around to it when everything else is ‘fixed’ (whenever that is).

We’ve become very adept at responding to that argument over the years (including observing that most people can walk and chew gum at the same time), which means we are well prepared when Barrie Cassidy writes nonsense like this:

“And already merely raising the issue has shown how divisive it can be. The ALP’s national conference is a singular opportunity for its leader, Bill Shorten, to take centre stage with a developed plan for the future built around economic management. The issue of Palestine threatens to distract from that. Loading up the agenda with an unnecessary brawl around gay marriage is a further impediment” (emphasis added).

Well excuse us Barrie if we, the ordinary members of the ALP, think that prioritising the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, and how we can best achieve those rights, is worthy of being debated for one short section out of a three day political conference.

And we’re sorry (or more accurately, #sorrynotsorry) that such a discussion might be uncomfortable for those who either oppose LGBTI human rights, or don’t believe a centre-left political party should be doing everything in its own power to pass marriage equality legislation (which is exactly what a binding vote would be – the most that the ALP can deliver).

After all, that is what the ALP National Conference is, or at least what it should be: a decision-making political gathering, where people put forward the best case for change, and attempt to persuade the majority of delegates to agree. That is all that Ms Plibersek, and many, many others, are seeking, and it is no less than we deserve.

To suggest otherwise – that it is actually some kind of extended press conference, where Bill Shorten can “take centre stage with a developed plan for the future built around economic management” but separate from any genuine policy debate – is a pretty hollow conception of what party democracy should look like.

One final point on this argument, and that is to note that we have been here before.

When John Howard first introduced legislation containing his homophobic ban on the right of LGBTI-inclusive couples of get married in 2004, the ALP hastily acquiesced. The primary argument used for that capitulation was the need to avoid a messy internal division, especially with a federal election to be held shortly thereafter.

Except that agreeing to support the marriage ban didn’t really help at the ballot box then – and the only long-term electoral consequence of that decision was to give the Greens a massive fillip, and decade-long recruiting tool, something that has been particularly evident at the recent Victorian and NSW elections.

We shouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Holding this particular debate now might be a challenge for some. But shying away from this fight will have much worse outcomes in the long run.

  1. The ALP should agree to a wider range of conscience votes

This argument has reared its head occasionally in recent years, including from the Member for McMahon and Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen.

Apparently, rather than agreeing to marriage equality being treated in exactly the same way as nearly every other policy issue, the ALP should instead significantly broaden the range of topics on which we allow individual MPs and Senators to vote solely according to personal preference (or individual whim).

And Barrie Cassidy appears to agree. On Friday he wrote:

“As voting patterns change, parties need to be more diverse. The broad church imperative grows, not diminishes. That means, at times foregoing discipline for flexibility; being more open to conscience votes, not less so.

“Insisting that conscience votes should be limited to matters of religious belief – life and death matters like abortion and euthanasia – is far too limited. They should apply to a range of debates not directly religious, but more a matter of morality and, yes, conscience; issues where feelings are deeply personal and immutable, like surrogacy, adoption, stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified food.”

It’s funny (or more accurately, not amusing in the slightest) that even when pressed to come up with suggestions for additional issues that could attract a conscience vote, all Mr Cassidy could name are further examples where religious conservatives are likely to disagree with the majority Labor position – plus ‘genetically modified food’ which is tacked on rather bizarrely at the end.

For Mr Cassidy, and presumably others like him, things like the offshore processing and resettlement of refugees, the passage of privacy-invading metadata legislation, or even the decision of whether or not to go to war, are not issues ‘where feelings are deeply personal and immutable’.

This goes to the heart of the problem with proposals like those of Mr Bowen – the net outcome of an increase in the use of conscience votes within the ALP is likely to simply be an expansion of the number of issues on which religious or conservative MPs and Senators can undermine the chances of progressive reforms – and that includes on LGBTI policies, too.

This is not about increased party democracy, it is instead about further ways to restrict the ability of left-wing and progressive members of the party, both inside and outside Parliament, to effect change.

And that is before we even deal with the philosophical weakness of the case for more conscience votes, which was so eloquently highlighted by the Member for Griffith, Terri Butler, during the week (discussing marriage equality at 8 minutes, 50 seconds onwards: ):

“I can’t think of too many issues that we vote on in the Parliament that aren’t moral issues…

“Everything we decide has a moral dimension because it’s always a question of what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to the nation and the Australian people.

“I think that quarantining out same-sex marriage on morality basis, it just is jarring when you are asking Members of Parliament to vote on other issues that are equally significant to them and to their constituencies.

“…Every single piece of legislation that we consider as a caucus must be considered from a perspective of what’s right for our nation and what’s right for our constituency.”

Hear, hear.

Perhaps the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald should have watched this video, on their own website. It might have helped avoid a second major clanger of the week (after their column on Wednesday, which I was compelled to respond to here: ).

In today’s editorial ( ), which primarily focussed on the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, the preferred union of the Catholic Right, they actually wrote this:

“So angry are many in modern Labor that deputy federal leader Tanya Plibersek decided this week to go public with a plan to match the Shoppies’ use of Labor’s policy and rules forums to force federal MPs into a binding vote in support of same-sex marriage, as opposed to the current conscience vote.

“Unfortunately, Ms Plibersek’s method was equally undemocratic.”

The unavoidable conclusion of this argument – which describes simply seeking the authority of the ALP’s supreme decision-making body to make a policy position binding, in exactly the same way that nearly everything else is, as “undemocratic” – is that any binding policy is similarly undemocratic.

In essence, the Sydney Morning Herald editor(s) are arguing for a political party to be based entirely on conscience votes. Perhaps they, and Mr Cassidy and Mr Bowen for that matter, should be reminded that we had a political party that was based on this philosophy – the Australian Democrats – and they were deregistered by the Australian Electoral Commission last month.

For the rest of us, who still believe in a Party, and movement, based on collective action and solidarity, the case for a binding vote for marriage equality is as clear as ever. And it remains up to us to make that case, as loudly and as frequently as possible, in the three months left til National Conference.

Barrie Cassidy, whose The Drum opinion piece this week could charitably be described as 'not his best work'.

Barrie Cassidy, whose The Drum opinion piece this week could charitably be described as ‘not his best work’.

#ItsTimeToBind – The Quick Guide

During the course of April, I have written a series of articles, and letters, on the subject of a binding vote for marriage equality within the Australian Labor Party, in the lead-up to the expected debate on this topic at ALP National Conference in July.

These posts were accompanied by some (very) simple social media graphics which outline the main points of this campaign, including why the arguments against a binding vote (which we are already hearing, from both inside and outside the Labor Party), are wrong.

In this post I have brought together these graphics, and included the links to the original articles, as a ‘quick guide’ to the #ItsTimeToBind campaign. As always, if you support this campaign, then please feel free to share it far and wide (and if you do, please include the hashtag). Thanks, Alastair

Hey Australian Labor

The original post “Hey Australian Labor, It’s time to bind on marriage equality” from July 2014: <

Bill Shorten, Will you lead on marriage

My letter to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, from January 2015: <

Disappointingly, while he hasn’t replied to my correspondence, as at Thursday 30 April, it appears Mr Shorten has decided not to support a binding vote: <

Although it should be remembered, of course, that National Conference in 2011 decided to change the platform despite the opposition of its then Leader (former Prime Minister Julia Gillard) so there is no reason why National Conference can’t decide to change the Party’s rules, by supporting a binding vote, this year.

150403 50 percent versus 100 percentA letter to all ALP MPs and Senators (well, all except five) calling on them to support a binding vote in favour of marriage equality: <

Thank you Tanya Plibersek for supportingA thank you to the Deputy Opposition Leader, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator the Hon Penny Wong, for supporting a binding vote: <

And also a response to a later Sydney Morning Herald editorial that attacked Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek for standing up for the principle of a binding vote: <

%22Senator Wong's longstanding position is

If the woman on the left could be bound

Letters to the two Labor parliamentarians (Chris Hayes and Senator Joe Bullock) who have publicly threatened to cross the floor rather than vote for marriage equality: <

The question Chris Hayes should be asked

Myth_ The ALP always binds on 'gay

A post discussing four of the main arguments used against a binding vote on marriage equality within the ALP, and explaining why they’re wrong: <

Myth 2_ The ALP never binds its MPs and-2

Myth 3_ Marriage equality is too-3

Myth 4_ ALP MPs and Senators should have-4

Myth 5_ The only way to achieve marriage

Another post examining four additional arguments against an ALP binding vote in favour of marriage equality, and why they’re wrong too: <

Myth 6_ If Tony Abbott gives Liberal-2

Myth 7_ If marriage equality is passed-2

Myth 8_ A binding vote for marriage-5

Myth 9_ The ALP should not 'waste time'-2

And an additional post looking at two more arguments against a binding vote and, you guessed it, explaining why they’re wrong as well: <

Myth 10_ The ALP should introduce

A binding vote should mean exactly that-2

A look at the suggestion by some that a binding vote should include an ‘explicit right to abstain’ for socially conservative MPs and Senators. Umm, I don’t think ‘binding’ means what you think it means… <

People 'conscientiously object' to-3

NSW ALP Leader Luke Foley, Will you lead-2

Letters to all State and Territory Labor Leaders, calling for them to support a binding vote on marriage equality in the lead-up to National Conference: <

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Will-2

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszcuk,-4

WA Opposition Leader Mark McGowan, Will-2

SA Premier Jay Weatherill, Will you be a-2

Tasmanian Opposition Leader Bryan Green,-2

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, as the-2

* And I am happy to confirm that Mr Barr was very quick to tweet his response: “Yes”.

New NT Labor Leader Michael Gunner, Will-3

If the ALP can bind its MPs and Senators-2

A comparison between marriage equality and other morally and ethically contentious issues, like refugees and metadata, that the ALP nevertheless adopts a binding vote on: <

If the ALP can bind its MPs and Senators-3

If the ALP can bind its MPs and Senators-4

If the ALP can bind its MPs and Senators-5


Letters to unions affiliated to the NSW Labor Party calling on them to support a binding vote, because LGBTI members of the ALP, and of the union movement more generally, deserve solidarity too: < )

150501 IT2B solidarity

& soon-3A look at how far we’ve fallen behind other countries on marriage equality, posted on the day of the US Supreme Court hearings and in the lead-up to the Irish referendum: <

In Australia, we don't need the highest-6

And finally, if you are anything like me, the most important reason why now is the right time to push for a binding vote in the ALP:

#ItsTimeToBind Because we've waited long

Tanya Plibersek’s Principled Stand Threatens to Achieve Progress on Marriage Equality

This morning’s Sydney Morning Herald editorial (“Tanya Plibersek’s Misstep Threatens Progress on Samesex Marriage”), which attacks Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek for calling for an ALP binding vote for marriage equality, is misguided and mistaken – about as misguided and mistaken as its pre-2013 Federal Election editorial (you know, the one where they advocated for the Australian people to vote to make Tony Abbott Prime Minister).

The editorial itself appears to be making two main arguments, both of which are wrong:

  1. That Ms Plibersek’s call for an ALP binding vote will prevent the Liberals from adopting a conscience vote. This is a complete misdirection of blame.

The editorial implies that what Labor does on this issue (ie whether it binds, or retains a conscience vote) will determine what the Liberals do. Except that we have already had three and a half years of an ALP conscience vote on marriage equality (during which legislation to introduce it was heavily defeated), and the Liberals have yet to even properly debate it.

The only people who are able to decide whether there is a Liberal Party conscience vote on this issue are Tony Abbott and the members of the Liberal party room; the last time I checked Ms Plibersek didn’t have a vote there. And, even if the ALP votes as a bloc, the last three and a half years clearly demonstrates there is nothing to prevent the Liberals from simultaneously granting their MPs a free vote.

If the Herald is so concerned about the lack of progress on a Liberal Party conscience vote on marriage equality, perhaps they should apportion responsibility for this where it belongs – to Tony Abbott and his Liberal Party colleagues, and no-one else.

  1. That Ms Plibersek’s call for an ALP binding vote is an imposition on the freedom of conscience of her Labor Party colleagues. Once again this completely misunderstands the issue.

What the Herald is really trying to say is that forcing ALP MPs and Senators to vote for marriage equality even where their personal religious beliefs do not support it is an unacceptable imposition on their freedom of religion.

Except that it is not. Nothing in any marriage equality legislation proposed to date would compel any religion to conduct same-sex weddings, or to recognise those marriages within their religion.

If those churches – and the parliamentarians, including some inside the Australian Labor Party, who are members of them – do not want to support marriage equality within their religion, they will be absolutely free to continue to do so.

All that marriage equality legislation would do is amend the secular law of this country to ensure that it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It will allow those Australians for whom marriage is not a religious institution (and, with 72.5% of marriages conducted by a civil celebrant in 2013, that is an overwhelming majority of the country), including LGBTI Australians, to be able to choose whether to marry, or not, for themselves.

And, just as importantly, it would recognise the freedom of religion of those faiths and churches who wish to be able to marry LGBTI-inclusive couples, to do so too.

The alternative, to suggest that the personal religious beliefs of individual ALP MPs and Senators is a justification for them to withhold the right to marry from an entire class of people, from their fellow citizens, simply because of who they love, is not freedom of religion – it is the imposition of a particular religious view on the rest of country.

And that is what is unacceptable in this debate.

So, no, Sydney Morning Herald editor(s), Tanya Plibersek has not made a ‘misstep’ in calling for a binding vote for marriage equality, and she has definitely not derailed progress.

What Ms Plibersek has done is stand up for the principle that the secular law of this country should finally recognise the equality of our relationships, irrespective of who we are.

What Ms Plibersek has done is call for the Labor Party to support the human rights of all Australians, and to do so through collective action, because fundamental equality should not be optional, and because there is absolutely no reason why the ALP, which binds its parliamentarians on nearly all issues, should not bind on marriage equality too.

What Ms Plibersek has done is stand up for the values of me, and thousands of other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI), as well as progressive, members of the Labor Party, and the labour movement more broadly, who are pushing for this change to happen at National Conference in Melbourne in July.

And, contrary to the assertions in the editorial, that is not a failure to demonstrate leadership – instead, this is exactly what leadership looks like. It is a profound shame that the Sydney Morning Herald cannot recognise it.

(To read the full Sydney Morning Herald editorial, click here: )

Deputy Opposition Leader, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, who is demonstrating leadership by calling for a binding vote for marriage equality inside the ALP.

Deputy Opposition Leader, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, who is demonstrating leadership by calling for a binding vote for marriage equality inside the ALP.