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

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

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

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

It is also incredibly useful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From his statement:

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

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

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

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

Again, from his statement:

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

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

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

So, according to Mr Burke’s own words:

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

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

Answer: they can’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only ‘Albo’ had left it at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor leadership divides over compulsory same-sex marriage yes vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This situation is indignity writ large.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The choice between the two should be easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the ALP does control is its own internal rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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” (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/huge-spike-in-labor-mps-support-for-samesex-marriage-20150508-ggx4z4.html ).

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: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/12/21/senator-leyonhjelms-marriage-equality-bill-undermines-the-principle-of-lgbti-anti-discrimination-should-we-still-support-it/ 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 (http://www.australianmarriageequality.org/whereyourmpstands/ ) 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: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/ ).

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”: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-01/cassidy-why-pliberseks-gay-marriage-pitch-will-fail/6436082 ).

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: http://media.smh.com.au/news/federal-politics/childcare-policy-and-marriage-equality-6484325.html ):

“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: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/29/tanya-pliberseks-principled-stand-threatens-to-achieve-progress-on-marriage-equality/ ).

In today’s editorial (http://www.smh.com.au/comment/smh-editorial/the-shoppies-union-and-labors-samesex-marriage-flaw-20150501-1mxphs.html ), 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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/

Bill Shorten, Will you lead on marriage

My letter to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, from January 2015: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/01/24/bill-shorten-will-you-lead-on-marriage-equality/

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: <http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tanya-plibersek-push-on-samesex-marriage-faces-defeat-amid-labor-leadership-split-20150430-1mww0s.html

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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/03/letter-to-alp-mps-and-senators-calling-for-a-binding-vote-on-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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/05/thank-you-tanya-plibersek-and-penny-wong-for-supporting-a-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality/

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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/29/tanya-pliberseks-principled-stand-threatens-to-achieve-progress-on-marriage-equality/

%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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/07/the-mp-and-the-senator-threatening-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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/09/4-arguments-against-an-alp-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality-and-why-theyre-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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/16/4-more-arguments-against-an-alp-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality-and-why-theyre-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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/05/02/2-additional-arguments-against-an-alp-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality-and-why-theyre-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… <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/13/an-alp-binding-vote-for-marriage-equality-should-not-include-a-right-to-abstain/

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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/20/letter-to-state-and-territory-labor-leaders-calling-for-them-to-support-a-binding-vote-for-marriage-equality/

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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/22/one-of-these-things-is-not-treated-like-the-others/

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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/26/letter-to-unions-affiliated-to-nsw-alp-calling-on-them-to-support-a-binding-vote-for-marriage-equality/ )

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: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/28/its-time-to-bind-to-stop-us-falling-further-further-behind/

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: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/smh-editorial/tanya-pliberseks-misstep-threatens-progress-on-samesex-marriage-20150428-1mut6z.html )

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.

It’s Time To Bind, To stop us falling further & further behind

The US needs their Supreme Court for full marriage equality. Ireland needs a referendum. Australia just needs our parliamentarians to do their job.

Tonight, Australian time, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case to determine whether marriage equality exists, as a constitutional right, across all 50 states.

The decision will probably be handed down in June – and, based on current predictions, it is more likely than not that the United States will have marriage equality, nationwide, before the Australian Labor Party’s National Conference convenes in Melbourne in July (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/27/same-sex-marriage-us-supreme-court-arguments-constitutional-right?CMP=share_btn_tw ).

The US Supreme Court, which will hear arguments about marriage equality tonight (28 April). In Australia, the High Court has confirmed that only the Commonwealth Parliament can deliver genuine marriage equality.

The US Supreme Court, which will hear arguments about marriage equality tonight (28 April). In Australia, the High Court has confirmed that only the Commonwealth Parliament can deliver genuine marriage equality.

Another country that is expected to make progress in the coming months is Ireland, which will hold a national referendum on May 22nd. Required by their constitution, current polling puts the ‘Yes’ case there ahead.

Even though prominent figures such as Panti Bliss have expressed their nervousness in the lead-up of the vote (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/comedy/features/drag-queen-panti-bliss-on-the-irish-samesex-marriage-referendum-international-fame-and-the-changing-gay-scene-10168417.html ) it is nevertheless likely Ireland will soon join the ranks of countries that have left Australia far, far behind on this issue.

And, sadly, it is not a short list. As at 28 April, the full list of countries where marriage equality has been introduced (or at least passed, awaiting implementation) includes:

  • Argentina
  • Belgium
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Iceland
  • Luxembourg
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • South Africa
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden, and
  • Uruguay

Marriage equality is also legal in three regions of Mexico, in England, Wales and Scotland within the United Kingdom, and in 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, in the US.

The longer this list grows, the greater our nation’s embarrassment at being a homophobic and discriminatory backwater.

And each and every time this list expands, our determination should correspondingly strengthen to amend our nation’s appalling laws, which actively exclude people from equal recognition of their relationships, solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Unlike the US, the path to doing so will not involve the nation’s highest court. Without a Bill of Rights, or even a comprehensive Human Rights Act, there is no scope for Australia’s High Court to mandate marriage equality in Australia.

And unlike Ireland, we do not need to hold a referendum (or plebiscite) in order for marriage equality to be lawful.

The High Court decision in December 2013, which struck down the ACT’s same-sex marriage legislation (and therefore overturned the marriages of 31 couples), found that the Commonwealth Parliament, and the Commonwealth Parliament alone, has the power to introduce genuine marriage equality in this country.

Which means that it is up to the 226 men and women who sit in our House of Representatives and Senate to step up and fix this mess.

Or at least the bare majority of them.

And it is not too much to ask, as a gay man who has been engaged to be married for more than 5 years, and as someone who has been a member of the Australian Labor Party for 13, that all 80 MPs and Senators from my political party should be part of that majority.

In fact, despite the bleatings of people opposed to a binding vote, this is the bare minimum which we should expect from a centre-left political party, one that has delivered the vast majority of LGBTI law reform in this country, and a party, and movement, which is based on the organising principles of solidarity and collective action.

This is exactly what we, the LGBTI members of the ALP, the progressive members of the Party, and labour movement, and LGBTI and/or progressive members of the broader community, should be asking demanding of the Australian Labor Party at the upcoming National Conference: that the ALP support the full equality of LGBTI people, and of our relationships, and most importantly that every single ALP MP and Senator will vote to make this happen.

If we are successful in July, and a resolution to bind is passed, then the ALP will be able to campaign for the following 12 months with the very simple promise: if you vote for us at the 2016 federal election, we will deliver marriage equality. No ifs, ands or buts.

And then finally, more than 15 years after the Netherlands, more than a decade after countries like Canada and South Africa, and three-plus years after our Trans-Tasman neighbours, Australia will be able to join the 21st century, where entry into marriage is not restricted on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

That’s what I, and most Australians, would like to see. And that’s another reason why I believe #ItsTimeToBind.

One of these things is not (treated) like the others

One of the most compelling arguments in favour of a binding vote for marriage equality within the Australian Labor Party also happens to be one of the easiest to make.

And that is simply noting the many, many examples of morally and ethically complex issues on which ALP parliamentarians are expected to abide by a binding vote – and then asking why marriage equality should be treated any differently?

The obvious answer: it shouldn’t.

Given the Labor Party binds its MPs and Senators on nearly every single policy issue that is debated and voted upon in Commonwealth (and state and territory) parliament, there are plenty of possible examples to choose from. This post will look at just four:

  1. Refugee policy

If there is a single issue in the contemporary political arena that raises profound questions of morality and ethics, then refugee policy is it. I have my own strong views on it, as do most members of the Australian community (many of whom I would vehemently disagree with, particularly when considering the results of the last federal election).

Inevitably, so do Labor members of parliament – there are some who would probably agree with boat ‘turn-backs’ (arguing that they prevent mass drownings) and offshore processing and resettlement, just as there are no doubt many ALP MPs and Senators who do not support these measures because they sincerely believe them to be inhumane.

But, despite these differences of opinion, and ignoring the strength of convictions on this topic, when former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the majority of the caucus decided to reinstate offshore processing in 2012, leading to the indefinite detention, processing and resettlement of refugees in Nauru and on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, there was no conscience vote.

Instead, all MPs and Senators were required to vote in favour of the ‘Pacific Solution Mark II’ – and if they hadn’t, they would have been expelled from the Party.

It is impossible for anyone to argue that, if ALP parliamentarians can be bound to support the offshore processing and resettlement of refugees (including, of course, the detention of LGBTI refugees in two countries that criminalise homosexuality), they cannot similarly be bound to support the recognition of the fundamental equality of LGBTI relationships under secular law.

Former Speaker Anna Burke, one of Labor's most outspoken critics of the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees.

Former Speaker Anna Burke, one of Labor’s most outspoken critics of the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees.

  1. Metadata

Turning to a more recent example – in March, the federal Labor Opposition voted for, and consequently guaranteed the passage of, legislation that requires the compulsory retention of, and allows law enforcement agencies warrantless access to, the metadata of every Australian citizen.

Argued for on the basis of preventing terrorism by a Government that seeks refuge in the welcoming arms of ‘national security’ whenever it encounters poll troubles (which makes it, at the very least, highly questionable policy), there were a number ALP MPs and Senators who internally expressed their opposition to this massive intrusion into our private lives (including at least one high profile inner-city frontbencher, whose personal stance against the data retention scheme was reported in the media: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/mar/25/exclusive-albanese-spoke-out-against-metadata-bill-in-shadow-cabinet-meeting ).

In a party that is founded on the principles of solidarity and collective action, those same MPs and Senators were nevertheless compelled to support the legislation in parliament, no ifs, ands or buts.

Once again, it is incredibly difficult for anyone to seriously argue that, if Labor parliamentarians can be bound to support the Abbott Government’s metadata laws (which, in the views of some at least, represent one of the biggest encroachments on the civil liberties of Australians, ever), they cannot equally be bound to vote for something, like marriage equality, that would actually enhance the rights of its citizens.

  1. Single parent payments

One of the more controversial Budget decisions taken by former Treasurer Wayne Swan was the change to single parent payments, that effectively forced single parents – and primarily single mothers – onto the dole when their youngest child turned 8.

As with the previous two issues, there was significant backbench disquiet when these measures were first raised, on the basis of economic injustice, although that dissent did not prevent its adoption by the caucus, and therefore its passage in parliament thanks to a binding vote of ALP MPs and Senators.

Fast forward to the ALP leadership contest in September and October 2013, and both contenders for the top job, Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten, argued (some might say acknowledged) that this decision had been a mistake (see: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/leadership-rivals-agree-cut-for-single-parents-was-wrong-20130922-2u81m.html ).

If the ALP can bind its parliamentarians to support a cut to single parent welfare payments, something that was strongly argued against at the time, and which was later conceded as a ‘mistake’, including by the current Opposition Leader, why can’t it bind its MPs and Senators to support a policy that does not take anything from anyone, but would instead only give happiness to those couples who choose to participate?

  1. Live animal exports

The fourth and final issue which raised serious moral and ethical concerns for many members of the ALP caucus (this time borne out of concern for animal welfare), but on which those MPs and Senators were nevertheless still bound, was live animal exports.

Specifically, in 2011 and following the ABC’s Four Corners report, both when the decision was taken to suspend the live export of cattle to Indonesia, and again when the decision was taken to lift that suspension, all ALP parliamentarians were expected to vote in favour of these policies.

And, despite vocal criticism from a not insignificant number of backbench MPs at the time, ultimately crossed the floor against the position of the Government.

Just like the issues described above, if ALP MPs and Senators can be bound to support the live animal export of sheep and cattle, they can be bound to support the ability of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians to get married.

All four of these issues have raised, and continue to raise, profound moral and/or ethical issues for many members of the ALP caucus, whether those concerns relate to human rights (refugees), civil liberties (metadata), economic justice (single parent payments) or animal welfare (live animal exports).

There is nothing about the issue of marriage equality – which for most involves the question of LGBTI rights, but for others (however mistakenly) is solely about religious freedom – which makes it any more special, or controversial, or deserving of an opt-out clause from what would otherwise be a binding position of the Party.

In short, while one of these issues, marriage equality, might currently be treated not like the others, it is in fact exactly like the others – an important public policy issue, and one that may raise moral or ethical concerns for members of the caucus, but about which the ALP nevertheless adopts a position. There is absolutely no reason why that position should be made ‘optional’ with respect to marriage equality, especially when it is not for the other four.

Which means that, if the ALP can bind its MPs and Senators to vote for:

  • the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees
  • the compulsory retention of and warrantless access to our metadata
  • cuts to the single parent welfare payment, and
  • the live export of sheep and cattle;

then it can also bind its parliamentarians to vote for LGBTI equality, including the equal recognition of our relationships in the Commonwealth Marriage Act.

4 More Arguments Against an ALP Binding Vote on Marriage Equality… And Why They’re Wrong, Too

Last week I wrote about, and responded to, four of the most common arguments that will be used by opponents of a binding vote on marriage equality between now and the ALP National Conference in July (see: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/09/4-arguments-against-an-alp-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality-and-why-theyre-wrong/ ).

Well, they are not the only arguments that will be employed by people resisting any move to a bound Labor Party vote in favour of full LGBTI equality. This post looks at four more arguments that we are likely to hear… and explains why they are wrong, too.

  1. A conscience vote on both sides is the only way marriage equality can happen

The current make-up of Commonwealth Parliament, with a large Liberal-National Party majority in the House of Representatives, means that marriage equality cannot be passed in this term without a formal conscience vote within the Liberal Party. It is no surprise then that so much effort, from Australian Marriage Equality and others, has gone into trying to secure that outcome.

But, even if the Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, grants a ‘free vote’ – and that remains a pretty big if – it does not mean marriage equality will necessarily pass.

In fact, looking at the numbers, it would be very difficult (although not impossible) for it to succeed, even with a conscience vote on both sides – largely because the number of moderate Coalition MPs voting in favour is unlikely to be enough to get it over the line, especially given the significant minority of socially conservative ALP MPs that would still use their conscience vote to oppose it.

Which means it is incumbent upon us to consider other ways of reaching 75. One would be for the ALP to adopt a binding vote for marriage equality, ensuring all 55 of its lower house MPs support it, and for the Liberals to adopt a conscience vote, meaning the votes of only 1 in 5 Coalition MPs would be required for passage. Of course, the inherent risk of this strategy is that, once Labor adopts a binding vote in favour, the Coalition continues to embrace a ‘party vote’ against.

And that might happen. But it is by no means guaranteed – there is no reason why the decision of one side should automatically be reflected by the other (noting that we are already 3 and a half years into a period of ‘asymmetry’, with a bound vote on one side and conscience vote on the other). There will also be some MPs, with surnames like Gambaro, O’Dwyer and Turnbull, who would have a compelling electoral reason to keep trying for a conscience vote in any event.

All of which means that it is unclear whether marriage equality can be achieved this term, and if so, under what circumstances. What is clear, however, is that, given there is a real risk it will not be passed, we need to be actively considering what happens at the 2016 election, and how marriage equality might best be achieved in its aftermath.

The most direct path to marriage equality is for the ALP to adopt a binding vote at this year’s National Conference, and for it to win the 2016 federal election. In that scenario, marriage equality is passed, no ifs or buts.

Even if the election result is close either way –a small Labor victory, minority government/hung parliament, or a small Coalition victory – an ALP binding vote still probably means marriage equality is passed (because most crossbenchers are in favour, and a handful of Liberal Party backbenchers would likely cross the floor to support).

On the flipside, a conscience vote within the Labor Party, and either a conscience vote within the Liberal Party or a Coalition vote against marriage equality (with a small number of dissenters), would still leave marriage equality in plenty of doubt, and some doubt even if Labor wins the election next year.

So, while there is obviously a strong case for people to be pushing for a Coalition conscience vote on marriage equality at the moment, it is by no means the only way to achieve this important reform – and, in some scenarios, it might not be needed at all.

  1. If Liberal MPs enjoy a conscience vote, Labor MPs should have one too

This argument is related to the first, and suggests that, if and when Tony Abbott (or his successor) eventually grants a conscience vote within the Liberal party room, giving his colleagues a ‘free vote’ on the issue, Labor Party parliamentarians would also deserve a conscience vote.

Leaving aside the fact that marriage equality concerns the rights of LGBTI-inclusive couples, not the supposed ‘rights’ of ALP MPs and Senators, there are two main problems with this approach.

First, as we have already seen, there is no reason why the decision by one side of politics to grant a conscience vote (or not) must automatically be reflected by the other. It has been more than three years since the ALP granted its parliamentarians a conscience vote on this issue, something that has still not been replicated by either the Liberal Party or National Party.

Just because the Liberal Party might adopt a conscience vote in the future does not mean the ALP must keep theirs.

Second, using this rationale to argue against a binding vote within the ALP is effectively giving power to Prime Minister Abbott to determine both whether the Liberal Party has a conscience vote, and whether (or at least when) the ALP moves to a binding vote.

I can think of very few policy issues where the delegates to ALP National Conference would happily cede their authority, on an issue of fundamental importance to a large number of ALP members, to Tony Abbott. Here’s hoping they don’t do this, on marriage equality, come July.

Why should Tony Abbott get to decide, on one hand, whether Liberal MPs get a conscience vote, and on the other, whether Labor MPs should be bound?

Why should Tony Abbott get to decide, on one hand, whether Liberal MPs get a conscience vote, and on the other, whether Labor MPs should be bound?

  1. Passing marriage equality through an ALP binding vote would place it in danger of being repealed in the future

I have heard this argument a few times – that, if we manage to secure marriage equality solely, or even primarily, because of a binding vote within the ALP, then we risk it being repealed by a subsequent Coalition Government.

In reality, there is very little danger of this happening. If the ALP adopts a binding vote at the 2015 National Conference, and marriage equality is passed this term, it means, at a minimum, that the Liberals have granted their MPs a conscience vote (and, given the direction of progress across society, it is unlikely they would retreat from that commitment in the future).

Labor is also highly likely to narrow the gap in terms of numbers in the House of Representatives at the 2016 election, further entrenching this reform under a combined bound vote/conscience vote approach.

If the Liberal Party does not agree to a conscience vote now, and marriage equality is instead passed via a binding vote under a new Labor Government in 2016, it is nevertheless hard to see it being repealed at a later date.

That would involve the Coalition returning to power in 2019, maintaining its ‘party vote’ against equality (which, with the passage of another four years, will be increasingly difficult to sustain) and ensuring no Liberal or National backbench Senators cross the floor to prevent repeal. Which is an unlikely combination.

It also dramatically underestimates how quickly marriage equality would become an accepted part of the law, and culture. With approximately two thirds of the population already supportive, even some people who are presently opposed would be left wondering, in a relatively short timeframe after it was passed, just what all the fuss was about.

Indeed, the only comparable situation I can think of is Canada, where the Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, won minority Government in January 2006, just six months after Parliament passed its nation-wide marriage equality legislation.

Elected with a promise to hold a parliamentary vote on ‘re-opening the same-sex marriage debate’, within months it was clear that opposition had diminished, and acceptance of equality had grown, even within his own party.

By December 2006 a vote was indeed held – and lost by 175 to 123 – leaving Mr Harper to admit “I don’t see reopening this question in the future”. And, almost ten years later, it is clear he was right.

Australia would almost definitely be the same – once passed by Parliament, it is highly unlikely a future Parliament would vote to repeal marriage equality.

  1. A binding vote on marriage equality would ‘split’ the Labor Party, and therefore shouldn’t be pursued

Again, I have seen this argument used a few times recently, and it deserves a response. From a marriage equality advocate’s point of view, this possibility should be assessed through the prism of whether it helps, or hinders, the passage of marriage equality legislation. Nothing more or less.

And from that perspective, it is difficult to see a potential ‘split’ harming the cause. This is because, in 2012, more than 40% of the ALP caucus failed to vote in favour of marriage equality. Even assuming the proportion of MPs backing reform has risen since then, and that perhaps up to three quarters of House of Representatives ALP MPs would now support it, that still leaves 14 out of 55 who would likely exercise their ‘conscience vote’ against LGBTI equality.

I have seen no reports or estimates, anywhere, to suggest that 14 or more ALP MPs would cross the floor against a binding vote and therefore be expelled from the Party (and an additional number in the Senate). And I don’t think any serious commentator genuinely believes the number of people willing to break the rules of their political party, over this matter, would be that high.

Which means that, even accounting for a very small handful of MPs and Senators who could conceivably leave the Party over this issue, the number of votes for marriage equality would nevertheless be higher under a binding vote than under a conscience vote, thereby making passage through the parliament easier. End of story.

Of course, as someone who is both a marriage equality advocate and a long-term ALP member, the issue of a potential ‘split’ raises other considerations. I wrote about these in greater length in my post “Hey Australian Labor, it’s time to bind on marriage equality”, last year (https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/ ), and I do not propose to repeat all of those arguments here.

However, I would make the following brief points:

a) The number of MPs and Senators who end up crossing the floor against a binding vote, and being expelled from the party, is likely to be much smaller than many people think. Despite repeated claims that ‘at least half a dozen Senators’ could cross the floor, we should note that only two caucus members – Mr Chris Hayes MP and Senator Joe Bullock – have so far put their names publicly to this threat (and even they have not repeated these claims recently).

The inflated numbers that appear in stories in the lead-up to National Conference, without names attached, should be seen for what they are – attempts to intimidate or ‘blackmail’ the Party into backing down from making support for LGBTI equality a core Labor value.

b) The people making this threat (publicly or otherwise), were also quite happy for a binding vote to be imposed on progressives who supported equality, from 2004 to 2011, and did not object to Senators Penny Wong and Louise Pratt being forced to vote against their own human rights. To argue now that it is okay to bind progressives, and even members of the LGBTI community, against equality, but that binding religious conservatives to support equality is unacceptable, is hypocrisy at its worst.

c) Any decision by an MP or Senator to cross the floor in contravention of a decision by ALP National Conference, the supreme decision-making body of their chosen political party, and contrary to the broader philosophy of a party and movement founded on collective action and solidarity, would be an act of profound disloyalty and one that I, and the vast majority of ordinary Labor members will never, can never, respect.

The fact that it would be done because the parliamentarian(s) concerned could not abide the idea that couples like Steve and I might have the same rights – under secular law – that they enjoy, simply because of our sexual orientation, makes their prospective choice all the more disreputable.

All of which is to say that I concede there may well be some MPs and Senators who feel compelled to cross the floor on marriage equality, and therefore be expelled from the Australian Labor Party as a result.

But it will be a very small handful who choose to ‘split’ themselves from the party, and they would be doing so on the basis of hypocrisy, and disloyalty, and for a motivation that very closely resembles prejudice. To be frank, the loss of a few such individuals would not be much of a loss at all. And it is even less of a reason not to pursue a binding vote for marriage equality at this year’s ALP National Conference.

An ALP binding vote for marriage equality should not include a ‘right to abstain’

Earlier this month, Michelle Grattan’s piece in The Conversation, looking at controversial issues in the lead-up to ALP National Conference, included the following paragraph in relation to a potential binding vote on marriage equality:

“But moving away from a conscience vote would be very risky for party unity, and would require a get-out-of-jail card. Some Catholic MPs would not be able to support a bill for gay marriage – but if they voted against in defiance of a ‘binding’ position they would, under Labor rules, be expelled. A decision to bind MPs would need a qualification such as an explicit right to abstain. It would be less complicated for Shorten if the conscience vote stayed intact” (emphasis added, full article: http://theconversation.com/grattan-on-friday-shorten-faces-testing-issues-as-labor-conference-approaches-39694 ).

Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan of The Conversation

My first reaction was WTF? My second was to check the date – alas it was published two days too late to be an April Fool’s Day joke, even if the idea of a binding vote that includes an explicit right to abstain is absurd enough for April 1st.

Of course, it is difficult to apportion blame to Ms Grattan for coming up with the idea – given her decades of experience in covering politics I am confident that this idea must be being pursued by some within the ALP, and discussed with her, rather than being an intellectual frolic of her own.

In which case, someone needs to explain to those behind this push that a binding vote does not mean what they think it means, if they genuinely believe it can incorporate an ‘explicit right to abstain’.

Instead, what they are pursuing is an entirely new principle, or rule, within the Australian Labor Party – the idea of optional or ‘opt-out’ policy. And it flies in the face of more than 120 years of Labor Party history, and the concept of solidarity that applies to the ALP, and the labour movement, generally.

I struggled for several days to even come up with an appropriate analogy for this truly bizarre idea, because it is so anathema to traditional ‘labour values’. But here goes anyway:

MPs and Senators abstaining rather than voting for formal ALP policy is like union members calling in sick rather than going on strike with other employees. Sure, the employer doesn’t get a day’s work from them, but nor do they do anything to advance the cause of their fellow worker. They selfishly collect their own pay cheque, while abandoning the interests of the collective. And that makes them no comrade of mine.

There are many things about such a proposal that I find offensive, not least of which is the blatant hypocrisy. From August 2004 until December 2011, the Australian Labor Party did have a binding vote on marriage equality – it bound its MPs and Senators to vote against equality.

All of them. There was no conscience vote, and definitely no ‘right to abstain’, not even for those MPs and Senators who were obliged to vote against their own personal equality, on the basis of their sexual orientation, and against the equality of their relationships.

Nor was there a ‘right to abstain’ for those progressives who supported the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians. And we shouldn’t underestimate how deeply that belief – that all people should be treated equally, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status – is held by many people within the ALP.

In fact, it would be hard for anyone to assert that religious beliefs are more deeply held, or more important, than the fundamental belief that all people are equal, and should be treated as such.

Yet I cannot recall a motion at either the 2007 or 2009 ALP National Conferences, held during the period of the operation of the binding vote against marriage equality, seeking an ‘explicit right to abstain’ for those who supported equality. Perhaps those trying to promote this option now could produce evidence that they supported such a proposal at the time?

It would also be difficult to assert that an explicit right to abstain should exist to allow religious conservatives to oppose the equality of LGBTI relationships, but not to allow progressive members of caucus to abstain from policies which allow the offshore detention and resettlement of refugees to Australia, or indeed on a range of other issues.

And, if the Labor Party were to start making a number of its policy positions optional, or ‘opt-out’, then it would start to resemble something very different to what it is today, what it has been for decades, and unrecognisable from the party I joined 13 years ago.

What is almost as offensive as the double standard above is that the position of anyone seeking to push for a right to abstain on the basis of religious belief is also, at its core, illogical.

There is absolutely nothing about a binding position on marriage equality which would force someone to celebrate the marriage of LGBTI-inclusive couples within their religion; none of the marriage equality Bills to date have proposed that religions should be compelled to conduct LGBTI-inclusive weddings.

Those MPs and Senators opposed to equality could continue to believe, as part of their faith, that LGBTI relationships are second-class and not as worthy of celebration as those of cisgender heterosexual couples. They could even continue to judge same-sex ‘acts’ as sinful (even if, for many of them, their religious leader has recently asked ‘who am I to judge?’).

All a binding vote would do is compel ALP MPs and Senators, as members of a secular party, sitting in a secular parliament, to recognise LGBTI relationships as being equal under secular law. Nothing more and nothing less.

Their personal religious beliefs should not prevent them from being able to vote for secular equality. And if they can’t, then maybe they have chosen the wrong profession.

Even now, ten days after reading Ms Grattan’s article, I am having trouble reconciling how people within my party could be considering trashing the ALP’s traditions, all because they are so opposed to the idea that couples like Steve and I might enjoy the same rights that they currently take for granted.

Indeed, it is almost flattering that they are so threatened by LGBTI relationships, as if we are so radical, and powerful, that the simple act of us getting married will somehow wreak havoc on their world (instead of the reality that many of our relationships are as ordinary, with the same ups and downs, and love, and yes even arguments, as everyone else’s).

But hopefully, come July, such flattery will get them nowhere. The ALP National Conference in Melbourne should adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality, and there is absolutely no reason why it should make that position optional by including an ‘explicit right to abstain’ for certain MPs and Senators.