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

The arguments in favour of a pro-marriage equality binding vote within the Australian Labor Party are incredibly strong.

Marriage equality is about the fundamental equality of all Australians, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, and therefore it would be inappropriate to give a ‘free pass’ to some MPs within the ALP to vote against it.

The Australian Labor Party, as a collectivist organisation, also binds its MPs to vote together on nearly all issues – and there is no legitimate reason why marriage equality should be an exception to this principle.

And, strategically, a pro-marriage equality binding vote within the ALP is probably necessary for this reform to pass in either this or the next term of Parliament.

But, despite the above, there will still be many people, both within and outside the Party, who will try to argue against a binding vote between now and when it is finally voted upon at ALP National Conference in July.

This post looks at four of the most common arguments which will be made – and why they are unambiguously wrong.

  1. The ALP never binds on ‘gay issues’

There are two insurmountable problems which face anyone who attempts to raise this argument.

First, it’s simply not true. The two biggest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) law reforms which have ever been passed by the Commonwealth Parliament, namely:

  • the recognition of same-sex relationships (outside of marriage) in the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws – General Law Reform ) Act 2008 (and related changes to superannuation and family law), and
  • the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 which introduced federal LGBTI anti-discrimination protections for the first time

were passed by the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments – and both were achieved through binding votes.

Second, even where there were conscience votes related to ‘homosexuality’ – for example, in states and territories when sex between men was being decriminalised – in order to successfully use that as a precedent for another conscience vote today means effectively saying that it was ‘right’ that some ALP MPs were historically allowed to vote for the continued criminalisation of people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.

So, if you are basing your supposed ‘right’ to vote against the full equality of LGBTI relationships now on the fact that other people voted, unarguably, on the basis of homophobia in the past then you should expect to be called out on it – because that is the not-so-proud tradition with which you are associating (for more on this argument, see It’s Time to Bind: The Merits, here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/ ).

  1. The ALP never binds on ‘marriage’

This is perhaps my favourite of the pro-conscience vote arguments, and it has been ever since then Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard employed it during her speech at the 2011 ALP National Conference to argue against a binding vote. And by favourite, I mean the most laughable.

In essence, Ms Gillard attempted to argue that, because ALP MPs had been given a conscience vote on the Marriage Act 1961 when it was introduced, and when amended by the Family Law Act reforms of the mid-1970s, ALP MPs should have a conscience vote today (full text of the speech 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 ).

Leaving aside the fact that a lot had changed during the previous five decades, Prime Minister Gillard also managed to completely overlook the 2004 Howard Government amendments to the Act – which introduced a definition of marriage and about which, as Ms Gillard well knew at the time of her speech, the ALP bound its MPs and Senators to support.

If the ALP can bind its parliamentary members on something as fundamental as the legislative definition of the word marriage, as recently as 2004, then this argument is completely and utterly bogus.

Nicola Roxon, the Shadow Attorney-General who, in August 2004, first told the National Marriage Forum the ALP would be supporting Howard's homophobic legislation.

Nicola Roxon, the Shadow Attorney-General who, in August 2004, first told the National Marriage Forum the ALP would be supporting Howard’s homophobic legislation.

  1. The issue of marriage equality is so controversial the ALP cannot bind its members on it

Okay, so there is no consistent history of conscience votes on LGBTI issues, or even of marriage-related conscience votes, but maybe by combining these issues – and making the argument specifically about the issue of marriage equality – opponents of a binding vote might be more successful, right?

Wrong. As we all know (far, far too well by now), the 2004 definition of marriage introduced by the Howard Liberal-National Government, with the bound support of the Australian Labor Party Opposition, was the first major substantive vote on, and sadly against, marriage equality in the Commonwealth Parliament.

But it was by no means the last. It was followed by a series of votes, over more than seven years, in which all ALP MPs and Senators – including those who were LGBTI themselves, as well as those who were progressive and simply supported the fundamental equality of people irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status – were bound to vote against marriage equality.

Even though this position was overturned by the 2011 ALP National Conference, the modern Labor Party has still had a binding vote on marriage equality for more than twice as long as it has had a conscience vote.

And if it can bind its MPs against marriage equality, less than four years ago, there is absolutely no reason why it cannot bind its MPs for marriage equality in 2015 (and, if necessary, beyond).

  1. Marriage equality is about ‘choice’, therefore MPs should be given the choice whether to support it or not

This argument was made most recently by Andrew Probyn in The West Australian who, as well as repeating the rumour that ‘half a dozen Senators’ would cross the floor rather than vote for marriage equality (though as usual naming only Senator Joe Bullock), made the following comment: “[f]orcing a vote on an issue that is ultimately about choice would be dumb indeed” (story here: https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/opinion/a/26807957/tony-abbott-the-anti-hero-on-gay-marriage/ ).

His argument has at least the merit of being distantly (and I mean very distantly) related to something that is true. Marriage equality is indeed about choice – the choice lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should be able to exercise, to decide for themselves whether (or not) to marry their partner.

LGBTI people should be given the exact same choice that cisgender heterosexual couples currently enjoy. Because LGBTI people deserve to be treated equally under the law.

And it is the last point that is the most important. The issue, at its heart, is not about choice, it is about equality. The equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and the legal equality which should apply to our relationships.

And it is offensive to suggest that ALP MPs and Senators should, on the basis of their own personal beliefs, be free to choose to deny the equality, and consequently the human rights, of their fellow citizens solely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Equality, and the recognition of fundamental human rights, should not be an ‘optional extra’ for a contemporary centre-left political party.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #2: Because we’ve been waiting so damn long

Updated 12 August 2016:

The twelve year anniversary of Australia’s ban on marriage equality is now only 24 hours away. Unfortunately, the long-awaited repeal of the ban is still some time off.

The best-case scenario: Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government abandon their unnecessary, wasteful and harmful plebiscite, hold a free vote and marriage equality becomes law before the 13th anniversary. Alternatively, we could see marriage equality passed later this term, after the plebiscite has wreaked its havoc on young and vulnerable LGBTI people. We could even see marriage equality delayed beyond this term, until sometime in the 2020s (yes, you read that right – 2020s).

No matter when it (eventually) happens, there will be thousands upon thousands of Australian LGBTI-inclusive couples who have been waiting, and waiting, and then waiting some more, simply to exercise the same rights that our cisgender heterosexual counterparts enjoy without question. And, to me at least, the waiting itself has become both seemingly interminable, and insufferable.

Australian Marriage Equality effectively tapped into that sentiment with one of its main campaigns of 2014, with stories and images of couples with the ‘We’re Waiting’ message. That campaign was both an accurate reflection of the feelings of many within the LGBTI community, and a reminder to decision-makers that this policy choice is not abstract, but affects ‘real people’ in all-too-real ways [Alas, two years later that wait continues].

It is the human element of the ongoing ban, the costs of being forced to wait, that I want to concentrate on here. Because the delay of being able to get married, for years or even decades, carries with it very real consequences for the couples involved.

The first consequence is that it directly affects the ability of couples to celebrate their wedding with all of the family members and friends who they would like to be there for their special day. For those couples that do not choose to travel overseas (which itself obviously limits who is able to attend), by forcing LGBTI-inclusive couples to wait to marry within Australia the Parliament is effectively interfering with the ‘guest list’ of many couples.

From Steve and my perspective, as I have written before, we are both very conscious of the fact that, the longer the ban on marriage equality goes on, the less likely it is we will be able to have our remaining grandmothers there for the occasion (either for reasons of ill-health, or worse). They certainly could have been there had we been married four or five years ago (ie after an engagement of 12 or 24 months), but even today it is becoming doubtful [In 2016, it is now clear my grandmother won’t be able to travel to our wedding due to declining health].

I often imagine how ‘traditional marriage’ or ‘family values’ or even ‘small government’ campaigners would react if the Commonwealth Parliament intervened to tell them who they could, or could not, invite to their wedding. I suspect they would probably have a pretty spectacular hissy fit. And yet that is exactly what they are seeking to impose on us – stealing from us our ability to celebrate our weddings with who we choose.

The second consequence is another ‘theft’, but the effects of it won’t become apparent for most of us for many years, long after the ban on marriage equality is lifted. And that is they are stealing from us future ‘significant’ wedding anniversaries. Because, the longer our entry to marriage is delayed, the less likely it is that current LGBTI-inclusive couples will reach our 60th, 50th or even 40th or 30th wedding anniversaries.

Now, to some that might seem like a petty argument. After all, we will still have ‘anniversaries’ for the significant events of our relationships (for example, Tuesday was the 8th anniversary of when Steve and I first met, and we celebrated the occasion).

But it is impossible to deny that significant cultural value is still placed on long-lasting marriages, perhaps even an increasing value when so many marriages do not last that long (for whatever reason). How many of us experience an ‘awww, that’s sweet’ moment when we see the 60th or 50th wedding anniversaries of older couples, either family members or friends, or even reported on the news?

Well, far fewer of our relationships will reach those moments in the decades to come because of the actions of Commonwealth parliamentarians in 2004, 2012 and today. Once again, imagine the outcry from ‘traditional marriage’ (aka anti-LGBTI equality) campaigners if the Government were to intervene to effectively steal those anniversaries from them. They need to be reminded that it is just as unacceptable when it is done to LGBTI Australians.

However, it is the third consequence, yet another theft, which is the most offensive, and most objectionable. And that is that there are countless couples who wanted to marry but where one or both have died since the original ban on equality was introduced in 2004, and many more who will continue to die before being able to wed while this homophobic discrimination remains in place.

These are couples who have had the right to marry stolen from them, now and for all time, merely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. For most, they grew up at a time when homosexuality was criminalised, and when trans and intersex people were ‘invisibilised’ and subject to the worst forms of abuse, but who have then suffered one final indignity at the hands of the Australian Government – the denial of the equal recognition of their relationships during their lifetimes.

The worst thing, the most frustrating part, about this entire situation is that everyone knows marriage equality is inevitable. I know it. You know it. Julia Gillard knew it. Tony Abbott knew it. Malcolm Turnbull does too – even if he won’t grant the free vote to make it happen. In fact, all MPs, certainly since 2011 or 2012, if not before, must have recognised that marriage equality will eventually be passed in Australia, and that the only remaining question is whether that happens now, or in five or even ten years time.

And, while there is absolutely nothing that is ‘gained’ from this delay, as I have shown above there is plenty that is lost, not least of which is the undeniable loss of those couples who were never able, and will never be able, to wed.

Which makes the ongoing failure of Commonwealth Parliamentarians to pass marriage equality one of the most petty and vindictive acts – or omissions – in recent political history.

It is, frankly, unforgiveable that our MPs are not only stubbornly opposing what is right, and standing firm against the overwhelming tide of history and progress, they are rejecting the rights of Australian couples, including members of their own electorates, when they know in their hearts that all they are doing is delaying the inevitable, and making those couples pay the cost in the meantime.

This outcome, the price that is being paid by couples around the country because of this interminable ‘wait’, is definitely one of the things I hate most about marriage inequality.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #4: Because Julia Gillard let me – and the LGBTI community – down

I don’t cry much. Well, that’s not entirely true. I cry – a lot – at emotionally manipulative movies (and it doesn’t really matter whether they’re good, bad or Sandra Bullock). But outside a darkened cinema I can count on two hands the number of times I have cried over the past twenty years. And almost never in front of other people.

So why then did I find myself gently sobbing, for about 15 minutes, in the middle of a large crowd in Sydney’s Hyde Park, on the afternoon of Saturday December 3rd, 2011? It wasn’t because it was almost the end of what had been an extremely long year professionally, nor was it because I had only had about two hours sleep (although both factors certainly didn’t help).

No, I found myself crying in public, in a way that I genuinely had very little control over, because that was the moment that I knew that, then already almost two years into my engagement to Steve, it was going to be several more years before we would be able to walk down the aisle, in our own country and surrounded by our family and friends.

December 3rd was the day the 2011 ALP National Conference decided that, as well as making support for marriage equality a part of the Party’s platform, it would fundamentally undermine that position by allowing any Labor Party member of parliament to vote against the equal right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people to get married. And with that decision they destroyed the prospects of marriage equality passing in that term, and made it very difficult in the following term too.

What has happened since – the defeat of Marriage Amendment Bills in September 2012, the defeat of the ALP Government in 2013, and the lack of priority and support for this issue by the iAbbott, and then Turnbull, Liberal-National Government in its first term – were all entirely foreseeable on that early summer’s day.

When I wrote this, more than two and a half years since that National Conference vote and then more than four and a half years into Steve and my engagement – with who knows how many more left – and the hurt and anger which I felt on that day is still with me, often not very far from the surface.

I have learnt to channel that disappointment to provide even more energy and impetus to my advocacy and activism for LGBTI rights, for young LGBTI people who need safe schools and an inclusive curriculum, for LGBTI refugees fleeing persecution but who Australia locks up and resettles in countries which criminalise homosexuality, and of course for marriage equality itself.

But something which we must also do is to hold to account those people who are responsible for the ongoing unjustified and, let’s face it, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination against LGBTI people in the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961.

Almost 12 years into the ban on equal marriage and there is plenty of ‘accountability’, or blame, to go around. From John Howard, whose Coalition Government introduced the ban in 2004, to Mark Latham, who ensured the then Labor Opposition rolled over without anything resembling a fight, to all the conservative cheerleaders and News Ltd columnists (tautology, I know) who have opposed progress since then, to the Australian Christian Lobby whose entire existence appears dedicated to halting LGBTI rights, to Joe de Bruyn who sabotaged change within the ALP, his equivalents who have done the same in the Liberal and National Parties, the 98 members of the House of Representatives and 41 Senators who voted against LGBTI equality in parliament in September 2012, and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott who did all he could to defeat or at least delay marriage equality – all must accept their share of responsibility for the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians continue to be 2nd class citizens under the law.

But there is one person I blame above all else, one person who I believe should assume the largest share of responsibility for the fact that Steve and I can still not get married, one person whose actions had the most potential to change that situation for the better, but who instead chose to do exactly the wrong thing, at exactly the wrong time: former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

On 15 November 2011, in the lead-up to that critical National Conference, Gillard announced her views in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In that article, she chose to support a continued ban on marriage equality in the ALP platform, while also favouring a conscience vote, to be implemented by a rule change to make whatever policy position was ultimately adopted by Conference non-binding on MPs.

In doing so, Gillard chose what was the worst possible option, the one which would do the most damage to the short- and medium-term prospects of marriage equality in Australia.

That is not an over-statement. In practice, there were five main positions which Gillard could have chosen:

• Support for a platform change and a binding vote (the position of most marriage equality activists at the time)
• Support for platform change and a conscience vote (the position ultimately adopted by Conference)
• No position on either – and instead allowing Conference to decide both
• Opposition to platform change and support for a binding vote (which would at least have been consistent with the previous seven years, when all ALP MPs had been bound to vote against equality) or
• Opposition to platform change and support for a conscience vote (Gillard’s position).

If Gillard had chosen any of the four other options described, it is reasonably likely that both the platform change and a binding vote would have been successful at the National Conference, something which would have made marriage equality entirely achievable in 2012 in the process.

Instead, Gillard used her position as Prime Minister, and Leader of the Labor Party, to lean on people to ensure that, no matter what happened in terms of the policy, marriage equality would never be able to be implemented through a binding vote. She chose to actively exert the influence that she had because of her office to deny the right to marry to her fellow Australians on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

She went much, much further than simply advocating for a particular outcome: Gillard even chose to be the main sponsor of the motion in favour of a conscience vote, thus transforming the entire issue into a ‘test of leadership’. By stepping into the fray in this way, Gillard had turned the question of marriage equality into a question of loyalty which, for those of us who haven’t (yet) managed to suppress it, was the dominant theme – well, its absence was anyway – of the last term of ALP Government.

Thus, to stand up for the principles of fundamental equality and human rights was seen to be disloyal to the Party leader, and to simultaneously stand up for a binding vote – something which should be standard operating procedure for a collectivist party – was seen as doubly disloyal. And there were people inside the party who were making that very argument – that to support equality, and more importantly, to support a binding vote, was to be disloyal to Gillard – in the days leading up to the crucial ballot.

In the end, Gillard and her supporters couldn’t hold back progress altogether. There was enough support on Conference floor to achieve a resounding victory in terms of changing the platform to support marriage equality – while the vote wasn’t counted, it was estimated to be around 3 to 1 in favour. But her conscience vote resolution was also successful – by a much narrower margin, of 208 to 184.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

In short, it was (just) a bridge too far for the ALP National Conference to effectively ‘roll’ a sitting Prime Minister on both parts of the marriage equality equation.

If she had adopted any of the other positions outlined above, Conference would have only had to ‘defeat’ her once, or even not at all (if she had either done the right thing and supported platform change and a binding vote, or not taken a position to begin with). I genuinely believe that, had Gillard taken a different view, a binding vote would have been more likely than not – meaning that Steve and I might very well be married today.

And that is why, of all the people who have contributed to the current sorry state of affairs in Australia, where LGBTI relationships are deemed not worthy of the same recognition as cisgender heterosexual relationships, I blame Gillard the most – because her actions, above those of any other, were the most decisive in ensuring this 2nd class status was continued.

With the release of Gillard’s memoirs in late 2014, there was a concerted effort to glorify her Prime Ministership, and discuss only the positive accomplishments of her time in office – her rise as the first female Prime Minister, the introduction of a price on carbon, the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in federal law for the first time. And I would be the first to admit that they were all great accomplishments.

But biography should never be hagiography. So we must not overlook her central role in the defeat of marriage equality, not just in the last term of parliament, but in the subsequent and also potentially in this one too, because she helped to ensure that ALP MPs would not be bound.

In this important respect, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard profoundly let down not just Steve and myself, but all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians who believe that their relationships should be treated fairly and equally under the law. She was someone who should have been on our side, but instead actively worked against us.

She was wrong, and she wronged our community. Her actions were inexcusable, and I know that I and others won’t be accepting any excuses which she might attempt to proffer. Above all, what Julia Gillard did in late 2011 was unforgivable, and I for one will never forgive her. Nor should we ever forget.

[Postscript August 11th 2016: Of course, Julia Gillard has since been given strong competition for the title of “most disappointing Prime Minister on marriage equality”. And no, I’m not talking Tony Abbott, who, at the very least was widely understood to be opposed to LGBTI equality long before he took up the top job. Instead, I am talking about Malcolm Turnbull, who claims to support marriage equality – and even turned up to the 2016 Mardi Gras parade to ‘celebrate’ with the LGBTI community – but who continues to proceed with Abbott’s unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite. Just like Gillard, he was someone who many people believed would be on ‘our’ side – and yet he is spending political capital doing the bidding of those who would do us harm. Depending on what happens in the next 12 months, it might even turn out that Mr Turnbull snatches this particular title from Ms Gillard’s grasp. But for now, in mid 2016, it is still Gillard who I believe has caused the greatest delay to the happiness of tens of thousands of LGBTI Australian couples.]

Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality

[Updated 31 March 2015] After narrowly falling short at the 2011 National Conference, and with less than 4 months left until the next gathering, now is definitely the time to (re)start the push for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.

In this post, I will discuss the issue of binding versus conscience votes by looking at the state of play in the current Parliament, the arguments for and against changing the party’s rules, the internal consequences of adopting a binding vote, external strategic considerations in determining whether to pursue this change and, if you agree with my approach, I will end by suggesting ways in which you can assist the push for reform.

One last thing before we begin, however: I am a Labor Party member, and have been for about 13 years. But I am also an LGBTI advocate and activist and, where the ALP falls short of the standards which we, as a community, have every right to expect of it – as it does with respect to marriage equality – then I will call it out, and agitate for reform, both from within and from without. Because that is the only way to achieve change. It's Time to Bind Graphic It’s Time to Bind: The Numbers

This wouldn’t be a post about a Labor Party rule change if it didn’t start by looking at the numbers – in this case, the current numbers in Commonwealth Parliament.

The prevailing narrative in the push for marriage equality in early 2015 appears to be that all efforts must be directed at achieving a conscience vote within the Liberal-National Coalition, and that once this is achieved, marriage equality stands a reasonable chance of being passed in the remaining 12 to 18 months of this term.

But what if this narrative is wrong? What if a Coalition conscience vote is not enough?

If we look at the numbers closely, with the Abbott-led Government standing on 90 seats out of a possible 150 in the House of Representatives, and adopting increasingly conservative views on a range of social issues (section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, asylum seekers etc), do we really think there would be enough Coalition MPs willing to vote for marriage equality for any Bill to be successful, if the Labor Party were to continue to adopt a conscience vote?

Those who would answer that question in the affirmative point to two recent examples, from the past 2 years, where marriage equality was achieved in comparable countries, with conscience votes, and under (although not by) conservative governments: New Zealand, and England & Wales.

However, there are at least four key differences between the experience in those countries, and the current situation in Australia:

i) The conservative Prime Ministers of both, John Key and David Cameron respectively, were personally committed to marriage equality

ii) A significant minority of conservative party MPs in both were willing to vote yes (46% in New Zealand, 49% in England & Wales)

iii) The conservative Governments of both are minority Governments, meaning it did not take a large majority of other party MPs’ support to reach 50% plus one, and

iv) In both countries, roughly 90% of Labour MPs voted in favour, meaning the reform was passed easily in any event.

Of course, the size of the parliamentary victories for marriage equality in each country (395 to 170 in the House of Commons, 77 to 44 in New Zealand), mean that perhaps not all of these conditions need to be replicated in Australia in order for a Bill to pass here. But currently none of these conditions exist.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is staunchly opposed to marriage equality. He refused to allow a ‘formal’ conscience vote in the last parliament when the Marriage Amendment Bill was debated. He refuses to even consider changing his position despite the fact his own sister is in a same-sex relationship and wishes simply to have the same right to marry that he currently enjoys.

And, while others might place their hope in the possibility that his position in the Lodge might be involuntarily changed for him by his colleagues in the Liberal party room, that is still less likely to happen than not before the 2016 Federal election (at least in part because of the reaction to the Labor Party’s change of leaders in the lead-up to the 2010 poll).

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who, unlike his conservative counterparts in the UK (David Cameron) and NZ (John Keys), strongly opposes marriage equality.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who, unlike his conservative counterparts in the UK (David Cameron) and NZ (John Key), strongly opposes marriage equality.

The imposing 90 to 55 parliamentary majority enjoyed by the Liberal and National Parties over the ALP isn’t going to change (barring unforeseen by-elections, and even then only by one or two) before 2016, either.

The level of support for marriage equality amongst Labor MPs in Australia falls far short of their comrades in New Zealand and England & Wales, too. Instead of 90% support, only a slim majority of all Labor Party House of Representative MPs (and just under 60% of those that voted), did the right thing back in September 2012 – a low figure which undermines the party’s overall progressive credentials.

But the number of Liberal and National MPs who voted in favour of the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 was even lower: zero. While acknowledging that there wasn’t a ‘formal’ conscience vote – meaning that members of the frontbench were prohibited from voting yes – we should remember that the Liberal Party in particular is fond of saying that all of its (backbench) MPs have a conscience vote on every single issue.

And yet, of the 60 or so Liberal and National MPs who theoretically could have exercised that freedom, just one – Senator Sue Boyce from Queensland – abstained. And, as of 1 July 2014, she is not even there anymore. Not a single one of her colleagues joined her in abstaining, let alone voting to support the legal equality of LGBTI Australians.

Moving forward just two and a half years, it stretches credulity to suggest that, in the event a formal conscience vote were provided today, the level of support for marriage equality from Coalition MPs would even come close to approaching the 45% plus figure reached by conservative party MPs in New Zealand and England & Wales.

Putting the scale of the numerical challenge in front of us even more bluntly, if the level of ALP support for marriage equality were to be the same in 2015 as it was in 2012 (60%, now the equivalent of 33 House of Representatives MPs), and taking into account the support of cross-bench MPs Adam Bandt, Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, reaching the magical 75 votes needed to secure passage would require the support of 39 Coalition MPs – or 44% of all Liberal and National MPs in the House of Representatives (NB This calculation excludes the Speaker’s vote).

Based on everything we know – and under the leadership of someone like Prime Minister Abbott, whose personal opposition would influence some of the MPs in the Liberal party room in particular to cast their vote against – that bar seems very high, so high that it is arguably unachievable.

Let’s be generous then, and assume that the level of support amongst Labor Party MPs has risen to two thirds, meaning 37 MPs voting in favour (which is possible, given that some intellectual ‘dead wood’ was removed in September 2013). That would still mean 39% of Liberal and National MPs having to vote yes to achieve even the slimmest of victories in the lower house.

Now, that might, just might, be possible. But, if you were a gambling person, would you be willing to put any money on that outcome?

With the future of marriage equality – something of much higher value than mere money – at stake, why aren’t we considering these numerical hurdles, and asking whether there might be other ways to reach 75?

One of these ways is if the Australian Labor Party were to adopt a binding vote on marriage equality for its Federal MPs, through a rule change at its July 2015 National Conference in Melbourne. That move would instantly change the equation – with a guaranteed 58 votes in favour (55 from the ALP, plus three from the cross-bench), only 17 Liberal and National MPs (or 19% of the total) would need to support a Bill to get it across the line.

Less than one in five would still be difficult, although it is eminently more achievable than the two in five required in the other scenarios described above. However, as the outcome of the 2012 legislation clearly demonstrates, even reaching this figure would still require a formal conscience vote for Coalition MPs.

Which brings me to my conclusion on this section. Looking at the numbers alone, it is highly likely that, in order for marriage equality to be passed in the current term of Parliament, we need for there to be both a conscience vote for Liberal and National Party MPs and a binding vote for Labor MPs.

I will readily admit that those dual, and potentially competing, objectives, may or may not be achievable – something I will examine later in this post (see ‘The Strategy’, below) – but before we get there, I want to talk further about the policy arguments for and against an ALP rule change, as well as the potential internal consequences of such a reform.

It’s Time to Bind: The Merits

As many people would be aware, one of the major achievements of the 2011 ALP National Conference in Sydney was the adoption of a commitment in the national platform to support marriage equality. As a result, the current platform includes the following (at paragraphs 126 and 127):

“Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples irrespective of sex who have a mutual commitment to a shared life. These amendments should ensure that nothing in the Marriage Act imposes an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage.”

However, during the very same debate, that Conference passed a resolution that fatally undermined any chance of marriage equality passing in the last parliament and which, as we have seen above, continues to jeopardise its passage today. Specifically, “[c]onference resolves that the matter of same sex marriage can be freely debated at any state or federal forum of the Australian Labor Party, but any decision reached is not binding on any member of the Party.”

Putting aside numerical considerations for a moment, let’s examine the merits of such a position. Is there any justification for adopting such a position, for supporting legal equality irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, but then allowing MPs to vote against such equality?

The short answer: no. And the long answer: no.

In short, there is absolutely no reason why, of all the various policy issues which the Australian Labor Party adopts binding positions on, marriage equality should be considered so ‘special’, so extraordinary, as to justify a disregard to, and breakdown of, solidarity on this issue.

Turning to this question in slightly (okay, a lot) more detail. The Australian Labor Party is founded on the labour movement, and as such has adopted at its core the principles of collective organising, of being stronger together than as individuals.

In its rules, these ideas of solidarity have translated into the practical requirement that all parliamentary representatives are bound to vote together on nearly all issues. The ALP has certainly never argued, as the Liberal Party has done, that its backbenchers enjoy a conscience vote on every single issue.

Any differences on policies are debated, often passionately, at conferences, and inside caucus rooms – but they are resolved there, and the Party adopts a united front on the floors of parliamentary chambers across the country.

Except when it doesn’t. On a small number of issues, the Labor Party does have a history of allowing conscience votes, usually for things that are described as ‘matters of life and death’, although it is hard to see how laws relating to homosexuality, or LGBTI rights more generally, have much to do with that criteria.

The problem for those that would try to use the history of LGBTI-related conscience votes to argue for a free vote on marriage equality today is that, for each of these votes, when we reflect on them critically, it is clear that the granting of a conscience vote was wrong. Wrong on principle, and wrong in practice.

For example, the 1984 law decriminalising homosexuality in NSW was not formal Government legislation – it was a private member’s Bill, put forward by the then Premier, the late Neville Wran, and voted on by all parliamentarians, including Labor MPs, through a conscience vote.

Does anyone who is involved in public life today – anyone outside the religious fundamentalist fringes of society – actually believe that this legislation was wrong? Is there anyone in the modern ALP who is prepared to say that Labor MPs should have been allowed to vote against the decriminalisation of male same-sex sexual intercourse in 1984? Anyone at all?

The counter-argument is probably that the vote on decriminalisation took place thirty-plus years ago, and that times, and attitudes, have changed in the decades since. Fine, let’s look at a more recent example. It took until 2003 for the NSW Parliament to equalise the age of consent between male same-sex sexual intercourse and mixed-sex intercourse.

Again, it was achieved through a conscience vote, and again a small number of ALP MPs (including, it should be pointed out, a current Federal shadow minister, together with Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi) voted against this proposal. Just over a decade later, would anyone seriously try to mount the argument that ‘gay sex’ should attract a higher age of consent than ‘straight sex’? Or that the ALP should have abandoned the principle of a binding vote on this issue? I suspect the answer would be a resounding no.

There are other examples, from other jurisdictions, as well as examples relating to other LGBTI topics (such as adoption or parenting), but each has the same outcome – a conscience vote which opponents of equality argue for vociferously at the time, citing all sorts of ‘moral hazards’, but which looks patently ridiculous in hindsight.

Those that say the history of conscience votes on homosexuality inside the ALP justifies a free vote on marriage equality now, should feel free to explain how the use of a conscience vote in each of these cases was justified – because these are the precedents, and this is the intellectual ‘legacy’, with which they are associating.

If they cannot demonstrate that those conscience votes were morally justified – and I would strongly suggest they can’t – then perhaps they should reconsider their arguments for a conscience vote on marriage equality today. Otherwise, they will simply be consigning the Labor Party to making the same mistake again, and again, and again.

Instead, I believe the Labor Party should fast forward through the all-too-frequent embarrassing ‘phase’ when it allows some MPs to vote for legal discrimination against a minority group before it belatedly corrects itself, and reach the right conclusion now – which is that all of its MPs should be bound to vote in favour of marriage equality in this term.

On a related topic, some have argued that the ALP should adopt conscience votes relating to the broad topic of ‘marriage’ per se (not just whether LGBTI couples should be included, but also on other marriage-related matters such as divorce). However, there isn’t a strong historical precedent for their use here, either.

In one of the more bizarre political speeches in recent times, speaking against marriage equality in her address to the ALP National Conference in December 2011, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard argued that a conscience vote should be granted because a conscience vote had been granted to Labor MPs with respect to the ‘no fault’ divorce reforms in 1975 (for the full text of her speech see 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 ).

Then Prime Minister celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

Gillard did not even attempt to acknowledge the fact that, from the time then Prime Minister John Howard introduced his ban on marriage equality in 2004, until her speech that day, all ALP Parliamentary Members had been subject to a binding vote on marriage broadly, and marriage equality specifically – they had been obliged to vote against LGBTI equality.

This glaring omission, ignoring the most recent seven years and instead grasping at an example from 36 years prior, was necessary because there was no intellectual rationale for that binding vote to become a conscience vote in 2011. The substantive arguments for and against marriage equality had not changed, the rights and wrongs of the issue were no different than they had been in 2004, or 2007, or 2009.

The only thing that had changed was the numbers within the ALP (something I will come to in the next section). In practice, there was no new ‘moral hazard’ which had suddenly transformed this issue from something which the Labor Party could bind on, to something so complex or controversial that it required a free vote.

There wasn’t even a legitimate question of religious freedom at stake – because, as made clear in paragraph 127 of the platform (see above), no church or religious group would be obliged to perform an LGBTI-inclusive marriage ceremony. This was a secular party, supporting the position that a secular Parliament should vote in favour of LGBTI relationships being recognised as equal under secular law. Nothing more and nothing less.

The ridiculousness of the ALP’s position – in supporting a platform position in favour of marriage equality, but then allowing its MPs to depart from that platform whenever they wished – is revealed when we compare it with the other main social policy issue currently the source of controversy within the ALP (and across Australia generally): asylum seeker and refugee policy.

Now that is an issue which is genuinely ‘life and death’, with policies that have directly led to the murder of Reza Berati, in Australian custody in an offshore detention centre which the last ALP Government re-established, which continues to drive scores of asylum seekers in numerous camps both here and abroad to, and beyond, breaking point and yes, which has also involved several mass drownings at sea.

If ever there was a subject that raised substantive moral and ethical concerns that would be it. And yet there is no conscience vote on that issue, nor is there a push for one (and, it must be added, nor do I believe there should be one – while obviously I think current ALP policies on refugees are appalling, the only way they can be changed is in Government, with all ALP members bound to vote in favour of a more humane approach).

The moral and ethical concerns of those who would oppose marriage equality, because of their belief that marriage is something which must be reserved solely for heterosexual relationships, pale in comparison, indeed fade into complete insignificance, when assessed against those concerns raised by refugee policies.

In fact, one could assert that in contrast to refugee policy the topic of marriage equality looks like an ‘ordinary’ issue, and definitely something which can be resolved in the ‘ordinary’ way – by a Conference vote, for and against, and then implemented by a binding vote on Labor’s parliamentary representatives.

But there is one last comparison that I wish to make which I think shows that the ALP’s position in favour of a conscience vote on marriage equality is not just ridiculous, but outrageous as well.

Imagine, for a second, that in 2011 the original ‘White Australia Policy’ still existed, and that in response the Labor Party National Conference adopted in its platform a position that it would remove discrimination based on race from all immigration policies and laws. Now imagine that same Conference then turned around and said that ALP MPs could vote against these changes if they believed that some migrants were less deserving of rights simply because of their race.

Outrageous, isn’t it? I believe that not only would the modern ALP not allow a conscience vote in these circumstances, it would expel, without a moment’s hesitation, any MP who even threatened to crossed the floor. And yet the only difference between that example and the issue of marriage equality is that the former is about racial equality, and the latter is about the equality of all people irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

As this comparison makes abundantly clear, while overt discrimination on the basis of race is, thankfully, not permitted (at least in the Party’s rules), there remains a special privilege for some MPs within the Labor Party to vote against the fundamental rights and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

12 months ago, Commonwealth Attorney-General Senator the Hon George Brandis encountered significant, and entirely justified, criticism, including from the ALP, when he told Parliament that “people have the right to be bigots.” But isn’t this criticism just a little bit hypocritical when, at the same time, Labor’s rules state that Federal Members of Parliament have the right to be homophobes?

I’ll concede that some people don’t believe opposing marriage equality necessarily equates with ‘homophobia’ (I do, but, to some extent, that is a debate for another day). Nevertheless, the point remains: there isn’t really any substantive difference between the Attorney-General saying that people have the right to be bigots, and the Australian Labor Party saying that its parliamentary representatives have the right to discriminate against LGBTI people.

Just as it has done, so effectively, in the racial vilification debate, the Labor Party should be standing up for members of a minority group who are vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of their attributes. Instead, while its platform says the ALP supports finally conferring LGBTI Australians with ‘1st class’ citizenship, its rules allow a significant proportion of its MPs to continue to vote to entrench our 2nd class status.

It’s time to say that this situation is offensive – as I believe many people, both inside and outside the ALP, find it to be.

It’s time to point out that allowing a conscience vote on marriage equality is a gross violation of the principle of collective organising that lies at the heart of the ALP, a violation that has no merit or justification in principle whatsoever.

It’s time to say that allowing conscience votes on LGBTI rights of any kind, and permitting some Labor Party parliamentarians to vote against legal equality on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, is no longer acceptable in a contemporary political party that likes to refer to itself as progressive.

It’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.

It’s Time to Bind: The Split?

When the merits of the arguments for and against a binding vote are all said and done, there are only two things left to debate – the internal consequences of adopting a binding vote for the ALP, and the external strategic considerations, for marriage equality campaigners, concerning when to push for such a vote.

Turning first to the internal consequences. There is an accusation which is made against people calling for a binding vote on issues like marriage equality, that we are somehow trying to ‘split’ the party. It is certainly an accusation which I would expect to hear frequently in the lead-up to July’s National Conference, particularly as the push for a binding vote gathers steam.

In fact, the exact opposite is true – those who staunchly oppose being bound are the ones who threaten to split the party because of their own narrow self-interest.

Supporters of marriage equality inside the Australian Labor Party have spent more than a decade meticulously playing by the rules. From the bleak days of August 2004, when the Latham-led Opposition chose to roll over and vote against marriage equality in response to John Howard’s attempted political ‘wedge’, through the following six years slowly building the case for full equality, while also gradually addressing other areas of discrimination (including securing de facto relationship recognition at the federal level for the first time in 2008).

By 2011 the time had come to make the final push for a change to the national platform. But that delay had come at a cost. For more than seven years, progressive Federal MPs had, in line with the Party’s binding policy position, been voting against LGBTI equality.

This included openly lesbian Senator Penny Wong, who was bound from the first vote in August 2004, until the December 2011 National Conference, to vote against her own equality, and that of her relationship. Her position invited, and attracted, much opprobrium from her own community, with suggestions that she had sold them out – even though she was playing the long game.

The same is true of out (and sadly, now out of Parliament) Senator Louise Pratt, who was bound to vote against the equality of her community from the time she was sworn in, in July 2008, until the end of 2011. But it was not just LGBTI MPs that were affected. Any progressive MP who genuinely believed the stance against marriage equality was discriminatory and wrong (and there were plenty from the very beginning), accepted these restrictions, and the criticisms that went along with them.

There were no public threats to cross the floor and bring forth a split in the Party – just a quiet determination to slowly build support towards an eventual change to the platform. That is exactly how a collectivist party should operate. And, in the lead up to the last National Conference it was clear that these tactics had paid off, with momentum firmly on the side of the angels.

In absolutely no coincidence whatsoever, that was also the moment opponents of marriage equality inside the ALP suddenly discovered that this topic was an ethically fraught one, and therefore required a conscience vote. Note that they did not make these arguments at the National Conferences of 2006 or 2009, both of which had occurred during the period when a binding position was being imposed on progressives.

No, the opponents of marriage equality only truly discovered the ‘benefits’ of a conscience vote when the number of people supporting equality inside the Party had finally outgrown the number of people opposed, and that as a result there was a very real risk that a binding vote might actually be applied on them.

It is plain to see how this Damascene conversion, adopted in quick succession by opponents of equality from the then Prime Minister down, was in fact intellectually bankrupt. In essence, they were saying that, while it was perfectly acceptable to impose a binding vote against progressives from 2004 to 2011, it was totally unacceptable to impose a binding vote on social conservatives from 2011 onwards.

In short, “binding votes are for people like them, not people like me.” That, my friends, is the antithesis of collectivism.

But worse than this blatant hypocrisy are the threats of socially conservative ALP MPs who state, usually in private or off-the-record, but occasionally in public, that even if the ALP were to adopt a binding position in favour of marriage equality, they reserve the right to thumb their noses at the bonds of solidarity and instead cross the floor.

As reported by Phillip Coorey in the Sydney Morning Herald at the start of the 2011 conference: A handful of Right MPs, including Chris Hayes from western Sydney, told the Herald yesterday they would never vote for gay marriage, even if party policy dictated it. “You do believe in certain things. I can’t apologise for my beliefs,” Mr Hayes said. (full article: <http://www.smh.com.au/national/we-wont-vote-for-gay-marriage-even-if-party-changes-its-position-say-labor-right-mps-20111130-1o766.html#ixzz371gEEuUI )

In more recent times, Mr Hayes has been joined by another Federal Parliamentary colleague in saying that, no matter what the supreme decision-making body of the Australian Labor Party decides, his own views against LGBTI equality mean that he feels no requirement to be bound by it.

As reported by Phillip Hudson in The Australian on 4 April 2014, then candidate, now Senator, Joe Bullock, declared that, “[i]f the party decides it [marriage equality] is not a conscience vote and expels me, so be it.” (full article: <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/labor-senate-candidate-joe-bullock-sorry-for-offensive-speech/story-fn59niix-1226874445978 )

If a binding vote was good enough for Senators Wong & Pratt before the 2011 National Conference, it is good enough for Mr Hayes and Senator Bullock in 2015.

If a binding vote was good enough for Senators Wong & Pratt before the 2011 National Conference, it is good enough for Mr Hayes and Senator Bullock in 2015.

It is hard to work out which part of these comments is most offensive. Whether it is the complete disregard for not just the rules of the party of which they are representatives, but its philosophical underpinnings too. Or the absolute sense of personal entitlement which spouts from their mouths (for the record, this attitude, that an MP considers themselves above the party, is one ‘age of entitlement’ that I would definitely like to see come to an end).

But for me, it is not something either Mr Hayes or Senator Bullock said which is most repugnant. It is what they didn’t say. Neither finished their statement by saying that they would resign from Parliament.

Any member of the Australian Labor Party, from Federal Opposition Leader to local branch member, is free to decide at any time that they can no longer abide by the Party’s rules, and therefore to resign. But, for Members of Parliament, elected as candidates for a collectivist party, standing on and bound by a collectivist platform, the consequence of doing so should be that they resign their seat in Parliament as well.

The fact that neither Mr Hayes nor Senator Bullock committed to doing so speaks volumes about their honour, or (arguable) lack thereof.

Because, as much as (some) News Ltd columnists and the Australian Christian Lobby would try to turn any MP who crossed the floor on this issue and was subsequently expelled into some sort of martyr, abandoning solidarity but retaining the seat in Parliament which they secured as a member of, and with the assistance of, the Australian Labor Party would, in my view, be the height (or indeed depth) of dishonour.

The attitude of Mr Hayes and Senator Bullock also amply demonstrates exactly who would be responsible for any ALP ‘split’ in the event that the Party does adopt a binding vote.

It would not be the fault of those who painstakingly make their case in the Party’s internal forums, who secure the passage of a binding resolution at the next National Conference in July 2015, all in accordance with the Party’s rules and processes.

No, any split would be the responsibility of those who would do their best to burn the place down if they did not get their way.

I used to think that the most appropriate analogy for this situation – of the ALP continually succumbing to demands for ‘conscience votes’ whenever social conservatives refused to abide by a particular decision – was that of parents giving in to the tantrums of a two-year old. That, by continuing to give that toddler what it wants rather than saying “no”, the Labor Party had created a monster that keeps on demanding more and more and more.

On reflection, however, that is grossly unfair on two-year olds. They don’t actually know what they are doing. Well, they might, but they are not yet old enough to be held liable for their behaviour.

Whereas the people who make these threats, time and time again, know exactly what they are doing. They are blackmailing their own political party, a group that they should hold and demonstrate allegiance towards, knowing that the party is more likely to give in to their extortionate demands than stand up to them.

Well, the time has come to say no more to their hypocrisy, and no more to their blackmail. It is no longer acceptable to simply give in to people who have zero respect for the party of which they are a member. Who believe that they alone have the right to deviate from a collectively-determined platform which is binding on everyone else.

It’s time to push for a binding vote in favour of marriage equality on all ALP Members of Parliament. And, if there are some MPs who decide they cannot abide by that decision (and there may well be some, although probably far fewer than many people expect), then by all means, the door is that way, but the seat should stay here.

In practice, any member who does decide to leave, ‘split’ in terms of their commitment to the party a long time ago. Besides, these are people whose one noteworthy ‘achievement’ in life will be having left their political party, while a sitting member of parliament, because they couldn’t live with the idea of all Australians being equal regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. Their loss would not really be any loss at all.

It’s Time to Bind: The Strategy

Questions about parliamentary numbers, internal ALP rules and any potential party ‘split’ are actually the easy part of this discussion. The most complex issue in this entire debate concerns strategy, namely whether now is the appropriate time for marriage equality campaigners to restart the push for a binding vote.

And I will begin this section by acknowledging that different people, well-motivated and on the same side of this campaign (the broader movement for marriage equality), will arrive at a different assessment on this subject. There are people who I respect who will argue that any push for a binding vote inside the ALP jeopardises the overall campaign and therefore should be abandoned.

But, while I understand their opinions, I respectfully disagree.

For me, the framework for approaching this issue comes in the form of the following three questions – presented together with my answers:

i) Is there an inherent philosophical inconsistency in pushing for a binding vote inside the ALP while also pushing for a conscience vote in the Coalition? No.

ii) Would a binding vote in the ALP automatically mean there is no chance of a conscience vote inside the Coalition? No.

iii) Does pushing for a binding vote inside the ALP make it more difficult to achieve a conscience vote within the Coalition? Possibly.

Looking at these issues in more detail. The answer to the first question – concerning philosophical inconsistency – might seem counter-intuitive to some, but here is why I answered “no”.

First, we should always remember that there is nothing inherently ‘good’ about a conscience vote (there is nothing inherently ‘bad’ either, unless you are part of a collectivist organisation). A conscience vote is simply a process, an instrument, a means to an end.

I am sure nearly all marriage equality campaigners would be satisfied if there was both a binding vote inside the ALP and a ‘party vote’ in the Coalition, not only meaning that marriage equality was passed, but also that it would be done with a large majority and in a spirit of true bipartisanship.

Sadly, that is not going to happen. There is no chance of the Liberal and National Parties, in their current forms, adopting a formal position in favour of full LGBTI equality. Hence, it is entirely rational to push for a conscience vote within the Coalition, both to improve the overall numbers in the Parliament, and to ensure that no MP is forced to vote against the fundamental rights of other Australians on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

On the other side of the political aisle, the ALP already has a conscience vote, which means the only procedural change which can increase the share of Labor Party MPs voting in favour of marriage equality is to adopt a binding vote instead. From an advocate’s point of view, again, it is perfectly justifiable as a strategy to be arguing for the Australian Labor Party to maximise the number of its MPs voting in support.

Meanwhile, the same philosophical arguments would still apply – it would remain the case that no MP would be forced to vote against the fundamental rights of their fellow Australians (the same as for the Coalition).

No corresponding argument can be made by those opposed to marriage equality. This is because the right to get married, in secular law, has exactly zero impact on anyone else’s human rights. More couples would be married, and recognised as such by the State. LGBTI Australians would finally be treated equally in the Marriage Act 1961. That is all.

No-one else’s rights to be married, or have their own marriages recognised, would be affected. No religion’s right to recognise marriages (or not recognise, as the case may be) within their own religion would be compromised. And, despite whatever the Australian Christian Lobby and other extremists might try to argue, there is no fundamental right to impose one’s religious beliefs onto others, or to deny other people their human rights for religious reasons.

Which means that, as well as a compelling numerical reason to argue for a binding vote within the ALP, and a conscience vote inside the Coalition, there is also a philosophical approach which can provide it with moral justification.

In response to the second question, while what the ALP decides could have an influence on what position the Liberal and National Parties adopts (see below), it is definitely not automatic. For example, we have already witnessed a parliamentary vote where one side was ‘bound’ and the other had a conscience vote – in September 2012, with the Liberal and National Parties deciding not to follow the ALP’s lead in adopting a conscience vote.

Similarly, even if the ALP was to retain a conscience vote for the remainder of this term, there is no guarantee that Coalition MPs will end up with a free vote. While it appears that some progress is being made inside the Liberal and National Parties, the ultimate decision still rests with the party room – and there remains a real chance that there will be no Coalition conscience vote this side of the 2016 election regardless of what Labor does.

Of course, it makes no sense to deny at least the potential that the push for an ALP binding vote may make it more difficult to achieve a conscience vote within the Coalition, which is why I answered the third question “possibly”.

But, just because that outcome is a possibility (how big that possibility is depends on one’s subjective point of view), does not necessarily mean we shouldn’t try. There are, for example, several reasons why I believe we should continue to pursue a binding vote within the ALP while also acknowledging and assuming this risk.

First, as I noted in ‘The Numbers’ section earlier, it is highly likely that for any Bill to succeed in this term of Parliament, it will need both a binding vote inside the Labor Party and a conscience vote inside the Coalition. So it seems logical to me that, while groups like Australian Marriage Equality make the case for a Liberal and National Party conscience vote, other groups (and I’m looking squarely at you, Rainbow Labor, among others) simultaneously pursue a binding vote inside the ALP.

Second, there is the question of timing. If the ALP is to adopt a binding vote, it can only be done at its National Conference, to be held on July 24-26, 2015 in Melbourne. That will be almost two years into this three-year term of Parliament (and approaching four years since the ALP first adopted a conscience vote).

If the Coalition hasn’t agreed to a conscience vote by then, then it is highly unlikely to agree to one at any point this term (and, if it is willing to say no this term, under sustained pressure from groups like AME and in the face of a growing majority of community support for marriage equality, it could very well say no next term, too).

Third, if we were to make an honest assessment of where things stand at this moment, it is still more likely than not that marriage equality will fail this term. While there is a (very) small chance that a conscience vote on both sides could get the job done, or that a combined ALP binding vote/Coalition conscience vote secures its passage, most possible permutations lead to the Bill’s failure.

Which means we must keep a close eye on the next term of Parliament, to be decided at the 2016 Federal election. And, given that election looks like it will at least be competitive, wouldn’t there arguably be more benefit than cost in having one of the two ‘parties of government’ standing on a platform of a binding vote?

Such a position would mean that marriage equality would have a strong chance of passage if the ALP were to win Government (success would be almost guaranteed) or if there was a close election result either way (with only a small number of Coalition MPs needing to break ranks to secure victory).

On the other hand, if the ALP continues to adopt a conscience vote, the success of marriage equality will remain dependent on whether the Liberal and National Parties also adopt a conscience vote, and even then on the vagaries of the balance between progressives versus social conservatives inside both the ALP caucus and Coalition party room.

Fourth, there is an argument that the ALP adopting a binding vote at the 2015 National Conference would actually increase pressure on the Liberal and National Parties to agree to a conscience vote ahead of the 2016 poll. After all, opinion polls consistently show support for marriage equality standing at a minimum of 55-60%, increasing with each passing year, and strongest amongst young voters (ie new voters entering the ‘electoral market’).

In this context, it would take a truly ‘courageous’ party (in the Sir Humphrey sense of the word) to bind itself to a position shared by at most a third of the electorate – and a diminishing proportion at that. I’m sure we can all think of a few Coalition MPs who would have extra incentive to push for a conscience vote in such a scenario (the name of an Australian TV prison drama springs to mind, for some reason).

As I said before, different people will hold different views about some of these strategic considerations. And, depending on how they see them playing out, I completely respect that they might arrive at the conclusion that we should not be pushing for an ALP binding vote at this point in time.

But I hope that they are also willing to acknowledge that there is no absolute ‘cut and dried’ case that the only way marriage equality can be achieved is through a conscience vote on both sides. That on this rainbow-hued issue, there are at least some strategic shades of grey.

In that case, where at a minimum there is doubt about whether to pursue a binding vote or not, I submit that we should fall back on our values, on what is ‘right’. From my point of view – and this post is simply my own perspective – I think we should be guided by the arguments for and against a binding vote. And, as discussed earlier (see ‘The Merits’), that case is open-and-shut: the ALP should adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.

Putting it another way, if there is a strong case that a binding vote is the correct ideological position to take, then it would take an equally strong strategic counter-argument to tell progressive members of the ALP not to purse that objective at this year’s National Conference. To suggest to them that, even though a binding vote is the right thing to do, you should explicitly not pursue it because members of the Coalition are yet to secure a conscience vote. In my opinion, no such ‘overwhelming’ strategic argument exists.

Instead, I believe we should do exactly the same thing as we did at the 2011 National Conference – campaign for a binding vote. It was the right thing to do then. And it will still be the right thing to do come July. I hope that, after reading these arguments, you agree.

One final point. Some might argue that we should wait for a conscience vote (presumably on Senator Leyonhjelm’s flawed Freedom to Marry Bill) to be held at some point in the next three to four months and, presuming it loses, to only push for a binding vote following that defeat.

But there are two problems with that argument. The first is that it took most of 2011, in the lead-up to December’s conference, to build momentum for the platform change. To have the same chance of success at this year’s conference means starting campaigning now (or, to be frank, yesterday). And that’s even leaving aside the problem that we don’t even know if Senator Leyonhjelm’s Bill will be debated, let alone voted on, before July.

Second, I believe that doing so would expose the marriage equality movement to (probably quite fair) criticisms that it was merely being opportunistic, or disingenuous, because it was only pushing for a binding vote because the conscience vote had lost, and not because a binding vote was also the correct position to take. I would prefer to take this stance from the beginning of the campaign so that we can have credibility when it comes time for the debate on the floor of Conference.

Overall, while ‘strategic considerations’ are definitely the most complicated part of this debate, I think it leaves us exactly where we have been all along: that it’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.

It’s Time to Bind: Take Action

As noted throughout this post, the main decision on whether the ALP adopts a binding vote on marriage equality will be made at the next National Conference, to be held in Melbourne on 24, 25 and 26 July 2015 (unless of course marriage equality is passed beforehand, in which case I will have been wrong, but very gladly so).

That means we now have only four months left to make the case for change, to persuade the Opposition Leader, the Hon Bill Shorten, his colleagues in the Parliamentary Labor Party, and all delegates to the National Conference (well, the majority of them anyway), that a binding vote is essential to achieving full marriage equality.

The first two places to contact are the Opposition Leader himself, and the Australian Labor Party Head Office directly. Their contact details are:

Twitter (NB Please use the #ItsTimeToBind hashtag)

Bill Shorten @billshortenmp https://twitter.com/billshortenmp

Australian Labor @AustralianLabor https://twitter.com/AustralianLabor

Suggested tweet: Hey @AustralianLabor & @billshortenmp, I believe #ItsTimeToBind in favour of #marriageequality. Please support a binding vote on all MPs


Bill Shorten (02) 6277 4022

Australian Labor (02) 6120 0800


The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Leader of the Opposition

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House


Australian Labor

5/9 Sydney Avenue



Bill Shorten Online contact form: http://billshorten.com.au/contact

Australian Labor Online contact form: http://www.alp.org.au/contact_us

If you are in need of inspiration for what to write or say, how about something like this:

“I support the equal right of all Australians to marry, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

While I welcome the decision of the 2011 ALP National Conference to adopt a platform position in favour of marriage equality, I strongly oppose the decision to provide a conscience vote, allowing some Labor MPs to vote against the fundamental rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

I believe it’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality. I call on you to support a resolution which makes support for marriage equality a binding position on all ALP Federal MPs at this July’s National Conference.”

Will Federal ALP Leader Bill Shorten 'do the right thing' and support a binding vote at the 2015 ALP National Conference?

Will Federal ALP Leader Bill Shorten ‘do the right thing’ and support a binding vote at the 2015 ALP National Conference?

If you liked this post, if you agree with it, or even if you think it is simply worthy of further debate, then please also share it with others.

And if you want to stay up to date with more on this issue, please follow me on twitter (@alawriedejesus https://twitter.com/alawriedejesus ).

You can also find out more about the marriage equality campaign generally, including the #ItsTimeToBind campaign, by liking the Equal Marriage Rights Australia Facebook page: <https://www.facebook.com/GMRA1

Finally, I wanted to say thank you for reading what has turned out to be a pretty lengthy post – I appreciate your interest in something which I feel so passionately about. I do sincerely believe that we can achieve a binding vote at this year’s ALP National Conference, but only if we start campaigning for it right now.

So let’s get to work, to achieve a binding vote in support of marriage equality inside the ALP, and most importantly a legislative victory for marriage equality inside the Australian Parliament. Because, as we know all-too-well by now, we’ve waited long enough.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #6: Because it Lets MPs Off the Hook

This reason is closely related to number 7 (“Because Sometimes it Overshadows Other Important LGBTI Issues”), because it too derives from the fact that marriage equality now dominates the Australian LGBTI policy landscape.

As a result of this dominance, the position that Members of Parliament – indeed, all candidates for elected office – take on marriage equality has come to be the ‘primary’ LGBTI question which they are asked during election campaigns. Of course, in many ways that makes sense, given the high level of interest in this issue, both in our community and across society.

The answer that each MP gives can also be a useful pointer to how they may vote on other issues. An MP who says they support marriage equality is assumed to be more likely to support LGBTI anti-discrimination laws, or inclusive aged care services, or safe schools.

In this way, the simple yes/no, good/bad answer on marriage equality has the potential to serve as ‘shorthand’ for whether they are likely to vote yes or no on other reforms important to our community. In fact, I used this approach (analysing past votes on marriage equality) just this week in helping to estimate whether particular MPs might be more or less sympathetic on an education-related initiative.

But we run into significant difficulties when this question becomes the only question that we ask of our MPs, when the only calculation that we make about whether an MP is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on LGBTI issues is whether they support marriage equality or not.

First and foremost, if we only ask about marriage equality, then we are letting our MPs ‘off the hook’ in terms of their responsibilities to deal with the full range of issues which are important to and affect the LGBTI community.

If the only LGBTI topic they ever have to talk about is whether or not we can get married, then we are not making them talk about how to achieve equality of outcomes in health, in education and employment, we are not making them discuss how the state should support diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Second, we are letting our MPs off the hook because answering yes to marriage equality is, when you think about it, actually fairly easy. As the long and drawn out debate over the past 12 years has demonstrated, there really isn’t much of a debate to be had at all – either you support the equal recognition of our relationships, or you do not (for more on that particular issue, see 10 Things #5).

There are many other LGBTI issues which are either more complex (for example, what are the best or most effective ways to reduce the over-representation of LGBTI young people in terms of mental health issues, depression and suicide), or which many of our MPs have never had to genuinely turn their minds to (such as where limits on religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws should be drawn). To say yes to marriage equality is simple – we should be making our MPs work a little bit harder than that in order to get our support.

Third, by not asking about a range of issues, we run the risk of letting off the hook those MPs who are supportive of marriage equality but who do not support other LGBTI issues. For example, it is possible to support inclusive marriage laws but also to support the exclusion of same-sex couples from the right to adopt or to access assisted reproductive technology (just ask Portugal, where gay couples can marry but not adopt or use ART).

It is also possible (and in practice it is far too common) for MPs to support marriage equality, but to simultaneously believe that religious organisations should be able to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* people, in schools, in health care, in employment, in pretty much any context. In this light, the simple yes/no, good/bad ‘shorthand’ fails us – because it is possible to support marriage equality, but not support LGBTI equality more broadly.

Conversely, it is possible to oppose marriage equality but be supportive on other LGBTI reforms. The best example of this was former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her position on marriage equality – to oppose it, while also supporting a conscience vote inside the Labor Party, thereby ruining any chance of its passage in the last parliament – was unconscionable, and, from my perspective at least, can never be forgiven (for more on that particular issue, see 10 Things #4).

And yet, Gillard’s period of leadership saw more pro-LGBTI reforms than most, if not all, of her predecessors. The introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in Commonwealth law for the first time, progressive Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, funding for the QLife counselling initiative, PBS listing for Gardasil vaccinations for boys and a national LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy, among other things, all happened during her (brief) tenure.

All of which goes to show that the position of our MPs on LGBTI issues is much more complicated than a single question, and much more layered than any simple yes/no answer could hope to capture. Marriage equality supporters can be poor on other reforms. Alternatively, MPs who oppose marriage equality can be supporters on other important issues.

Which means we do ourselves a great disservice if the only thing we ever talk about with MPs is whether they support our equal right to get married. We cannot, we must not, let them off the hook by allowing them to ignore the full breadth of LGBTI issues. We need to be better at putting more questions to them, and above all, we need to be better at asking more of them.

Dear Joe Hockey, If you’re serious about cutting expenditure, you must axe school chaplains

As promised during the 2013 federal election campaign, one of the first actions of the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National Government was to establish a National Commission of Audit, to review all Commonwealth expenditure in an effort to reduce spending and ultimately deliver a Budget surplus.

Indeed, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Audit described it as a “full-scale review of the activities of the Commonwealth government to:

-ensure taxpayers are receiving value-for-money from each dollar spent;

-eliminate wasteful spending; …

-identify areas or programs where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate…” [among other objectives].

The Commission’s first report was delivered to the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in mid-February, and the second was handed over at the end of March. The contents of both reports were, quite cynically, kept from the public ahead of the Western Australian half-Senate election on 5 April (because you wouldn’t want an electorate to actually be informed about impending spending cuts before they vote), although, with only one month left until the Federal Budget is handed down it’s highly likely they will be released in the next week or two.

It is expected that the Commission will recommended that the axe fall on (or at least make significant cuts to) a wide range of different programs, with apparently ‘authorised’ leaks focusing on things like the aged pension, Medicare (through a $6 co-payment) and other vital health, education and welfare services.

However, there is one program that, I believe, meets all of the above criteria and thoroughly deserves to be cut as part of any serious expenditure review: the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. It is almost impossible to argue that putting ministers of religion into government schools could ever be value-for-money, when compared with almost any other government expense. As well as being enormously wasteful spending, it would also seem to be the definition of a program where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate.

And yet, given the highly political nature of the Commission of Audit, I suspect it is unlikely the National School Chaplaincy Program is under any real threat. Even if the Commission were to recommend its abolition, it is hard to believe that Joe Hockey would actually follow through on any such advice when he rises to the dispatch box on the night of Tuesday 13 May.

More’s the pity. The National School Chaplaincy Program is amongst the worst examples of public policy over the past decade (and there have been some absolute shockers in that time). It was introduced by John Howard in the dying days of his government (2007), as he realised his grip on power was loosening with age – basically, it was a sop to ultra-conservatives and religious fundamentalists (both of which can be found in the form of the Australian Christian Lobby) to entice them to remain aboard his sinking electoral ship.

Alas, in a demonstration that poor policy, and religious pork-barrelling, can be bipartisan, the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, maintained the National Schools Chaplaincy Program throughout his first stint in the Lodge. When it came time to review the first three years of its operation, frustratingly he and his then Deputy, Education Minister Julia Gillard, chose to continue, rather than close, the program.

As Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, Gillard then announced a $222 million extension of the program til the end of this year (2014). This money was also provided to allow for expansion of the scheme’s coverage, from 2,700 schools up to 3,550 schools.

The only figure that accomplished anything to at least partially mitigate the genuine awfulness of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program over the past seven years was Education Minister Peter Garrett, who changed the program guidelines from the start of 2012 to allow schools to choose between chaplains or qualified student counsellors (hence the revised name). He also attempted to introduce a requirement that all workers, including chaplains, have some level of relevant qualifications, although recognition of ‘prior learning’ on the job was also encouraged.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of people employed as a result of this scheme remain ministers of religion. Imagine that: in 2014, the Commonwealth Government provides up to $24,000 per year to more than three and a half thousand schools to subsidise the employment of someone whose primary ‘qualification’, indeed whose primary vocation full stop, is to proselytise.

Ironically, the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program Guidelines then go to great lengths to attempt to limit the ability of chaplains to proselytise or evangelise from their position of authority within the school community, which is about as useful as telling a tree to stop growing leaves (or telling Cory Bernardi to stop being a bigot). It seems like the apotheosis of a set of rules where adherence, rather than breach, will be the exception.

The Guidelines themselves are also full of loopholes, allowing chaplains to “provid[e] services with a spiritual content (excluding religious education) including facilitating discussion groups and lunch time clubs” with approval and consent, as well as “performing religious services/rites (such as worship or prayer during school assembly etc), with… appropriate prior consent”.

This is an obvious and serious contravention of the principle of the separation of church and state. In the United States, such a program – paying for men (and some women) of faith to introduce their religion into government schools – would be struck out as unconstitutional by their Supreme Court.

Sadly, the anaemic interpretation of section 116 of the Constitution adopted by the High Court of Australia in the “DOGS case” [Attorney-General (Vic); Ex Rel Black v Commonwealth [1981] HCA 2; (1981) 146 CLR 559 (2 February 1981)] meant that it was never going to be struck down here, or at least not on those grounds.

Even after the program was successfully challenged by Toowoomba father, and man of principle, Ron Williams in 2012, with the High Court finding that the scheme did not have a legislative basis to appropriate money, the Government squibbed the ideal chance to abandon a flawed program and instead rushed through legislation to support its ongoing operation [as an aside, the High Court will be hearing a further challenge from Mr Williams, on May 6-8 2014, that the rushed omnibus Bill was itself unconstitutional].

And even if the National School Chaplaincy Program is ultimately found to be constitutional, there is still absolutely zero evidence that it is effective at improving the overall welfare of students.

If any of the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again) or now Abbott Governments genuinely considered that student welfare was a matter of priority, they would properly fund, rather than part subsidise, actual student counsellors or social workers to perform that function in every school, not implement a scheme where cashed-up churches could target individual cash-starved schools and offer the ‘services’ of ministers of religion, essentially as a backdoor way of indoctrinating a fresh generation of children.

There are ways in which the introduction of ministers of religion into schools can lead to direct harm too, not least of which being the issue of potential child sex abuse. In fact, at the same time as the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, the Government continues to encourage the employment of ministers of religion in public schools, with a code of conduct that allows them to have physical contact with students because “there may be some circumstances where physical contact may be appropriate such as where the student is injured or distraught”. [NB Obviously I am not saying that most, or even many, school chaplains are child sex abusers, but it seems unnecessary, and unnecessarily risky, to bring in people from institutions with a long history of covering-up such abuse and placing them in positions of trust in public schools.]

In addition, some (although obviously not all) ministers of religion also present a clear and present danger to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, given the blatant homophobia adopted by particular churches and their officials. This threat is explicitly acknowledged by the Guidelines, which in response attempts to prohibit discriminatory behaviour on the basis of sexuality (although it doesn’t appear as though either gender identity or intersex status are mentioned at all).

In the same way as the prohibition on ‘proselytising’ described above, however, it is inevitable that there will be some ministers of religion, in some schools, who deliberately flout those rules, and in the process cause untold harm to young LGBTI students.

In short, the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is philosophically unsound, has no evidence that it benefits student welfare, is expensive, potentially causes harm and is clearly an inappropriate activity to be funded through taxpayers’ money. Surely, out of all of the programs funded by the Commonwealth, across almost all areas, it should be at or near the top of any Commission of Audit ‘hit-list’.

Even if the Commission of Audit abrogates its basic responsibility to recommend that the National School Chaplaincy Program be axed, Treasurer Joe Hockey will still have to make a decision on the future of the program as part of the 2014-15 Budget, because, as noted earlier, funding for the scheme runs out at the end of this year.

What action Joe Hockey takes on this will reveal a great deal about what kind of Treasurer he intends to be. Of all the incoming Abbott Ministers, Hockey has been the loudest in condemning middle-class welfare, in arguing that the role of Government must be smaller, and that inappropriate or unjustifiable programs should be cut.

Well, here is an ideal opportunity to live up to at least some of that rhetoric, savings upwards of $222 million in the process (that’s the equivalent of one and a half $6 GP co-payments for every person in Australia). If he does so on 13 May, then he should be applauded for it (noting of course that there might, just might, be some other things in the Budget that warrant a somewhat different response).

If Hockey fails to rise to the occasion, and extends or even expands funding for ministers of religion in our public schools, then it will show that he is not serious at all about reining in inappropriate spending, and does not believe in small Government – instead, it will simply demonstrate that he believes in big government of a different kind, one that takes money from genuine welfare programs and places it in the hands of ministers of religion for the propagation of their beliefs.

So, now it’s over to you Joe: would you rather take money from people who simply want to see their doctor via a bulk-billed appointment, or from a program which funds the placement of ministers of religion into our public schools? I know which one I would choose. I guess we’ll find out on Budget night which one you do.

No 10 The Federal Election on September 7

This would possibly have been higher on the list, were it not for the fact the outcome was pretty much inevitable, long before polling day (and certainly by the time I finished working at Parliament House in mid-2012).

But the September 7 election was still a significant moment, because it drew the final curtain on the Rudd & Gillard (& Rudd again) Labor Government that, in less than 6 years, achieved more for LGBTI rights than any other federal Government in history.

Perhaps we, as a community, took some of those achievements for granted. Perhaps, because many of those reforms were so long overdue (case in point: de facto relationship recognition) that they didn’t feel like achievements at all, instead they were simply the actions of a Parliament finally catching up to where the population already was.

More likely, for many of the LGBTI people of Australia, the achievements of the Labor Government were overshadowed by one major law reform which they didn’t implement. As someone who is engaged to be married myself, I understand that frustration (and I would add another couple of major policy failures as well – but more on them later in this countdown).

Nevertheless, the fact that the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Government did not introduce marriage equality should not mean that we completely disregard their achievements in other areas. After all, they accomplished infinitely more in a little over 5 and a half years than the Howard Government did in twice that time (to be honest, the only positive Howard Government LGBTI achievement I can think of was allowing same-sex couples access to their partner’s superannuation, but even that wasn’t mandated, didn’t cover Commonwealth public sector employees, and was only passed as a trade-off when they introduced the marriage ban in 2004).

The positive list of Labor achievements between 2007 and 2013 includes:

  • De facto relationship recognition (and access to the Family Court on relationship breakdown)
  • The inclusion of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status in federal anti-discrimination legislation for the first time (again, more on that later in the countdown)
  • Another first, this time the first National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy
  • Providing funding for the National LGBTI Health Alliance for mental health projects
  • Providing funding for QLife, the national network of LGBTI telephone counselling services, to allow a 1800 number to be operational across the country 7 nights a week (the importance of which really shouldn’t be underestimated)
  • Introducing trans* and intersex passport reform, with M, F and X categories (where X includes indeterminate/unspecified/intersex)
  • Permitting LGBTI inclusive couples to access Certificates of No Impediment, to at least allow them to be married overseas, if not at home
  • Providing Gardasil vaccinations to teenage boys, so that future generations of gay and bisexual men are protected from anal, penile and throat cancer
  • Introducing Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, and
  • Removing some gender requirements for PBS medicines, meaning easier access to some treatments for trans* and intersex people.

The above list (which I am sure is not exhaustive) is, all things considered, a pretty impressive one.

It is a shame that, through their own actions (or, more specifically, inaction), the Rudd and Gillard Government will, for many, be remembered more because of the failure to recognise the fundamental equality of love, than any of the things I have noted above. Because, in reality, they left the state of LGBTI affairs in Australia a far better place on 7 September 2013, than what they inherited on 24 November 2007.

Still, there is one way in which the outgoing Labor Government could be remembered more fondly over time – and that is if the actions of the newly-elected Abbott-led Liberal and National Government make them seem better in hindsight.

Already, that looks like a distinct possibility. The first LGBTI-related action of the Abbott Government was taking the ACT and their same-sex marriage laws to the High Court (thus seeing them overturned). And there are plenty of other tests to come over the next 12-24 months, including deciding whether to continue funding for some of the above-named initiatives. Not to mention the potential threat to anti-discrimination reforms, and in particular the possibility of Brandis & co reintroducing an exemption for religious aged care service providers.

So, while we (quite rightly) criticise the Rudd & Gillard Labor Government for what it didn’t do, perhaps every once in a while we should also reflect on the good things that it did accomplish.

My Top 12 of 2012

On the last day of 2012, I thought it might be an opportune time to reflect on the major achievements, and disappointments, for the LGBTI community over the past 12 months. The following list of 12 highlights (or indeed ‘lowlights’ for a few) include a mix of domestic, and international, developments, as well as a couple which are not directly LGBTI-related, but which indirectly could have a major impact on LGBTI people. Of course, any ‘list-making exercise’ involves inherently subjective judgments about what is important, and I would be interested to hear your views about what should have made the list but is not included (and vice versa).

And so, in no particular order, here are my 12 highs and lows of 2012.

Gardasil Vaccine Image

1. Boys to get free Gardasil vaccine

On 12 July, Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek announced that, from next year, boys aged 12 and 13 would be provided with three free doses of the Gardasil vaccine, which protects against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). This is a massive long-term win for the LGBTI community – and in particular gay and bisexual men – and finally overturns the homophobic decision of the previous Government to exclude teenage boys from the National Immunisation Program.

The then Health Minister, Tony Abbott, who initially resisted listing Gardasil for anyone, eventually chose to restrict free access to Gardasil to school-age girls on the basis that this would protect these girls from HPV, and the boys who would in future sleep with them, thereby reducing the prevalence of HPV across the ‘broader community’. Except that, obviously, it would do little to reduce HPV prevalence amongst men who have sex with men, who would not be immunised.

This is significant because, while most people understand that HPV causes cervical cancer, it also causes penile, anal, and mouth and throat cancers. So, as a result of Tony Abbott excluding boys from accessing this vaccine from its commencement in 2007, there will be a six year cohort of gay and bisexual men who could have been protected against the cause of many types of cancer, but will instead potentially suffer long-term serious health consequences. To me, that is the epitome of the phrase blood on his hands.

Still, this is not to detract from the announcement by Minister Plibersek, and the amazing achievement that all gay and bisexual men born in Australia from the year 2000 onwards will have a dramatically reduced risk of developing cancer. Well done, Tanya.

2. National LGBTI Aged Care and Ageing Strategy

Another major achievement by the Federal Government this year was the release of the National LGBTI Aged Care and Ageing Strategy by the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler. This strategy, released on 20 December, is absolutely essential to help end the stigma of silence surrounding, and the direct and indirect discrimination confronted by, older LGBTI people as they engage with aged care services and enter aged care facilities.

The fact that it was released at all is a testament to the hard work, over many years, by people such as academic Jo Harrison, and the National LGBTI Health Alliance, and of course to a Minister and Government that was willing to both listen to, and work with, the community on this issue. The strategy is also backed up with a commitment of funding (at least $2.5 million), which will help aged care service providers to learn how to be inclusive of LGBTI individuals, couples, carers and their families.

However, this is funding that must also be protected from a Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, who has already identified this bucket of money as a potential saving should the Coalition win Government next year. So, well done Mark, and hands off, Joe.

3. Government MPs, including PM Gillard, join with Coalition to vote down marriage equality

Of course, when it comes to assessing the record of the Federal Government on LGBTI rights in 2012, most people will (quite understandably) not be able to look past the failure of the parliament to pass marriage equality. Dozens of ALP MPs, including Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, joined with all but one member of the Coalition (Liberal Senator Sue Boyce, who notably abstained), to vote against legislation which would have finally granted genuine equality to same-sex relationships.

This defeat was inevitable because of the decision by the ALP national conference in December 2011 to grant a conscience vote to its parliamentarians, rather than enforce a binding vote in favour of marriage equality. But just because defeat was inevitable, and expected, does not mean it was any less devastating for those of us longing to be acknowledged as first-class citizens.

Indeed, the scale of the defeat – 98 votes against and 42 in favour in the House of Representatives, and a somewhat closer 41 votes against and 26 in favour in the Senate – was particularly disheartening, especially as it shows the fight for equal marriage is likely ten or more years away from success.

The fact that the Prime Minister was one of those who stood intransigently against LGBTI Australians is something that will never be forgotten. This is someone who is able to identify and eloquently denounce sexism and misogyny ‘wherever she sees it’, but who either has a blind spot when it comes to homophobia, or who warmly embraces it. Shame, Julia, shame.

*The one positive development when it comes to marriage equality under federal law came in January when the Attorney-General Nicola Roxon implemented another ALP national conference decision, which was to allow same-sex couples marrying overseas to be issued with Certificates of No Impediment (CNI). As well as overturning the homophobic policy of previous Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock, this decision means that many more Australian couples – like Steve and I – will at least be able to marry elsewhere, even if our own country doesn’t recognise it.

4. Campbell Newman rolls back the clock

One of the most disappointing developments of 2012, especially for someone who grew up in Queensland during the 1980s and early 1990s, was the speed and scale of the newly-elected Liberal-National Party Government’s ‘crusade’ against LGBTI rights. Elected with a huge majority (78 seats out of a parliament of 89), Campbell Newman and his colleagues wasted no time in identifying the number one issue which they needed to address – the fact that LGBTI Queenslanders had come dangerously close to being accepted as equal.

In their first 9 months in office, the Newman LNP Government has:

  • Removed funding for the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC), the only HIV/AIDS peak body in the state which services the men who have sex with men (MSM) community. The Health Minister Lawrence Springborg attempted to justify this decision on the basis that HIV rates were rising faster in Queensland than in the rest of the country – but the figures released later in 2012 showed that HIV rates have actually declined in Queensland, counter to a national rise. Which leaves just one possible explanation for why QAHC was defunded – the homophobia of the LNP and Minister Springborg.
  • Amended the civil union laws, which had been introduced by the Bligh Government at the end of its term, to remove the ability of same-sex couples to have a legally-binding ceremony. Apparently having any ceremony at all was ‘mimicking’ marriage and needed to be outlawed as a matter of priority.
  • Announced that it will remove the ability of same-sex couples (as well as single people) to access surrogacy. It is still unclear what the penalty will be for couples who break this proposed law, although at various times during the year it appeared the Newman Government would introduce gaol terms for people whose only crime was attempting to found a family.
  • Introduced a new ‘student protection’ policy which will require school staff, including counsellors, to report to the principal any sexual activity between a student under 16 with someone over 16 (irrespective of their actual age difference), and of any student between the ages of 16 and 18 who has engaged in ‘sodomy’. This policy further entrenches the discriminatory age of consent provisions in Queensland (which has a higher age of consent for anal intercourse), and poses a danger to the health and safety of students who are simply seeking counselling and advice. At this stage it appears that school nurses – who are employed by Queensland Health rather than the Education Department – are exempt from this policy, although how long that exemption lasts remains to be seen.

The christian fundamentalist war against LGBTI people being waged north of the Tweed is a possible blueprint for a newly-elected Abbott Liberal-National Government to implement federally. Which makes the federal election to be held sometime during 2013 all the more important. In the meantime, the LGBTI people of Queensland are watching their rights being dismantled, one at a time. Shame, Campbell, shame.

5. Uganda debates ‘kill the gays’ bill

There have been several distressing stories internationally during the year. The appeals court in Cameroon upholding a three-year gaol term for Jean-Claude Roger Mbede simply for sending a text message to another man saying “I’m very much in love with you” was heart-breaking. The backwards steps being taken in Russia are also an obvious concern (not only do gay pride parades remain banned, but attacks against LGBTI Russians are rising at the same time the Russian parliament is considering legislation to outlaw ‘propaganda of homosexuality among minors’).

But without doubt the number one ‘lowlight’ internationally this year was the move by parliamentarians in Uganda to introduce capital punishment for homosexuality. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill (or Kill the Gays Bill as it is commonly referred), if passed, would mean Uganda would join 7 other countries where homosexuality is subject to the death penalty, out of 76 countries where being LGBTI is still a crime.

As the year ends there has been a short reprieve, with the Bill not coming on for a vote until at least February 2013, and some reports that the death penalty may ultimately be dropped from the Bill – although sadly not imprisonment. Still, the prospect of a country potentially introducing capital punishment for homosexuality this decade is almost too depressing for words.

Allout image

6. The emergence of AllOut (@allout)

One of the key groups which emerged to draw attention to, and fight against, the Kill the Gays Bill, was AllOut (a New York-based organisation which uses online and real-world tools to help the global LGBT movement for equality). In fact, I would argue that the emergence of AllOut is itself a major highlight of 2012.

AllOut is taking the best and most up to date models of activism and applying them to causes as diverse as LGBTI equality in Brazil, same-sex parenting in the EU, ending gay ‘cures’ in California, as well as trying to help stop the Ugandan Kill the Gays Bill. Here’s hoping that AllOut has a long and proud future, as it complements the work of existing and established organisations like the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).

7. International moves towards marriage equality

Another highlight of 2012 was the ongoing progress of the marriage equality movement. Leaving aside victories in the US (which I will discuss below), marriage rights were extended to LGBTI couples in Denmark in June. And the governments of Scotland, Luxemburg and France have all committed to marriage equality in the next few years. In England and Wales, and New Zealand, it appears likely that equal marriage will be passed next year by parliaments with conservative governments (Tory Prime Minister David Cameron is helping to drive legislation in Westminster, while National Party Prime Minister John Key has indicated he will support a private member’s bill in the Beehive).

The fact that two conservative leaders have embraced marriage equality shows just how far this movement has come over the past few years, and the fact that further progress is inevitable. Of course, it also further underscores just how out of touch and embarrassing Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are on this issue, but one day they too will be mere footnotes to our record of achievement.

8. The United States takes a giant leap for LGBTI ‘humankind’

It seemed like 2012 was the year in which the United States of America, and its people, finally ‘got it’ when it comes to LGBTI equality. The President, Barack Obama, announced that he supported marriage equality back in May (in part because he could muster no arguments against it when discussing the topic with his daughters). He was subsequently re-elected to serve a second term, and it seems that his pro-equality stance was a help rather than a hindrance (something which Julia Gillard should – but probably won’t – notice).

But Obama’s re-election was just one of many victories on Tuesday November 6 – a date on which LGBTI rights in the US took a bigger step forward than any single day since the Stonewall Riots in 1969. After 32 consecutive losses in state-wide referenda on same-sex marriage, all four states which voted in November bucked the trend and supported equality. As a result, Maine, Maryland and Washington became the 7th, 8th and 9th US states to introduce marriage equality, while a referenda to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota was also defeated.

The significant of these victories should not be underestimated. For years, the radical right in the US has used these ballots to ‘get out the christian vote’ – indeed, Karl Rove employed this strategy to help George W Bush secure re-election as recently as 2004. Instead, in 2012, the American people decided to vote for acceptance and inclusion rather than intolerance and hate. What. A. Change.

To top things off, in Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin was elected as the first openly gay person ever to serve in the US Senate. And that’s not even counting the fact the most influential political analyst of the US election was a gay man, Nate Silver.

This truly was a watershed election, and paves the way for bigger changes in the future. Which might be upon us sooner than we thought, with the US Supreme Court to hear cases considering both Proposition 8 (the Californian ban on same-sex marriage), and the constitutional validity of the Defense of Marriage Act, in 2013. Let’s hope that the Court’s decisions are amongst the highlights (and not lowlights) of next year.


9. Hip-hop comes of age

There was a similar sea-change when it came to US popular culture this year. After many, many, many years of waiting, it seems like hip-hop finally started to change its homophobic ways, and to deal with the subject of homosexuality with a little bit of respect rather than just a whole lot of ‘faggots’ and ‘fucking homos’.

Leading the charge was Jay-Z, who followed Obama’s announcement by declaring that he too backed equal marriage rights. Other hip-hop stars also expressed their support. Rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis then released one of the best bits of pro-LGBTI propaganda of the past few years (well, outside of the 2011 GetUp! video anyway) in the form of single Same Love, which was also used in the successful marriage equality referendum campaign in Washington State. And Azealia Banks (of 212 fame) came out at as bisexual in February, a statement which may take on even more significance in February 2013 when she releases her debut album.

But for mine the most important development in hip-hop in 2012 was the beautiful and tender letter written by rapper Frank Ocean, talking about his first love – a man – and published the week before his full-length debut Channel Orange was released. This was a hip-hop star not just coming out, but coming out at the start of his career, and making no apologies for who he was and who he loved.

Of course, there have been other music stars who have come out (Elton John, George Michael, KD Lang, Melissa Etheridge, and countless others), but usually this has been at the end of their careers – or at least long after they were well established. Even ‘out and proud from the beginning’ groups like the Scissor Sisters (personal favourites of mine) have played in the more traditionally gay-friendly genres of pop and dance, rather than the decidedly less accommodating field of rap/hip-hop.

What made Frank Ocean’s declaration even more significant was that he backed it up with what has been widely recognised as the best album of the year – which is just one of six categories in which he is nominated for a Grammy. Channel Orange is a brilliant collection of highly personal songs, including several which are sung to or about a male love interest. Bad Religion is just about the best piece of art on the subject of unrequited (same-sex) love ever. Frank Ocean didn’t just make gay hip-hop for a gay audience, he made great hip-hop that covered many topics, including same-sex love, and looks to have found a large audience around the world. Even if you don’t like his music, you cannot help but admire his accomplishments.

10. Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse

This is the first of two developments which are not explicitly LGBTI-related but which are fundamentally important to all Australians, including the LGBTI community. The decision by the Federal Government to appoint a Royal Commission into child sex abuse is a necessary first step in dealing with this evil scourge, as well as recognition of the courage of people like Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox and numerous others in pushing for it, despite many setbacks along the way.

There are two potential long-term consequences for the LGBTI community as the Royal Commission runs its course. The first is that the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, and other religious organisations, will become ever more apparent. Some of the same religious figures who have been arguing about the so-called ‘perils’ of recognising the love between two consenting adults, have also been involved in negligent inaction within their own churches about the very real problem of child sex abuse. Some may even ultimately be found to have engaged in the criminal cover-up of child sex abuse, instead preferring to pay hush money to the victims and simply moving the offenders around. The fact that the broader community will be able to see through the hypocrisy of these figures should make it much easier to push for LGBTI equality in the future.

The second consequence is much more ambiguous. One tactic which christian fundamentalists could resort to during the Royal Commission is to blame ‘gay priests’ for child sex abuse, and to try to link homosexuality and paedophilia in the public debate. This strategy, blaming ‘the gays’ for child sex abuse, was used by bigots like France Arena in NSW in the 1990s, and it is easy to see it being attempted again – with much unpleasantness all round.

But I think this ultimately could be a good thing. Public understanding of these issues has moved on since then. Provided the Royal Commission is handled sensitively and gay and lesbian lobby groups are ready for the debate, this could actually be an opportunity to forever break any connection between these two essentially unrelated ideas (homosexuality and paedophilia).

11. Asylum seekers are sent to Nauru and Manus Island

Again, this ‘lowlight’ is not directly LGBTI related. But I would include it here because any time a country turns its backs on asylum seekers – to the extent that it chooses to send them to detention centres in other countries for unspecified periods of time – is something so terrible that it cannot, and must not, be ignored. To put it bluntly, this is a national disgrace, and something which the Labor Government and Liberal-National Opposition should forever be ashamed about. Unfortunately, given the current state of political debate in our country, there does not seem to be much hope this situation will change any time soon.

Of course, as I have written previously, there are LGBTI dimensions to this issue as well. There will inevitably be some asylum seekers who are sent to Manus Island and Nauru who were seeking asylum in Australia because of LGBTI persecution in their home country. It should also be noted that, for gay and bisexual men who are detained in either of these centres, both Nauru and Papua New Guinea criminalise male homosexuality, and so they may be exposed to prosecution on that basis. Still, this is an issue which is larger than just these injustices to LGBTI asylum seekers – no asylum seeker should be imprisoned simply for seeking safety from persecution. Not now, not ever.

12. Exposure Draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012

I thought I might end on a positive note – and also something which represents unfinished business for 2013. In November, the Federal Government finally released the exposure draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012. As well as consolidating the existing protected attributes of race, sex, disability and age, this Bill would for the first time provide federal anti-discrimination protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians (*at this stage, intersex people are not properly protected, although hopefully that will be rectified during the committee stage).

If passed, this legislation would be another significant LGBTI-related achievement by the Labor Government. Building on relationship recognition and public sector superannuation reforms in 2008, passport changes for transgender people, Gardasil vaccinations for boys and the National LGBTI Aged Care and Ageing Strategy (both above), this would contribute to a fairly broad-based and substantial record of reform. To some extent, it is a shame that the failure to recognise marriage equality is so large a defeat that it overshadows much of this significant level of achievement. But then the Government has no-one to blame for that than itself.

Still, that is getting ahead of ourselves. Returning to the Bill, there are two major hurdles left to overcome. The first is in securing sufficient cross-bench support so that the Bill passes the House of Representatives, although the noises on this seem to be positive. The second, much more difficult, hurdle to overcome is ensuring that the legisation is passed before the federal election is called. With at most five months of sitting time left in this parliament, it is touch and go whether the Bill will be passed in time. Whether it does is the most important domestic LGBTI story of the first half of 2013. Fingers (and toes) crossed.

Julia Gillard and the ACL: Unholy matrimony

Two weeks ago tomorrow, the Australian Christian Lobby announced that Prime Minister Julia Gillard would be the keynote speaker at their annual conference in October. Given it was only a day after the Houston Report on asylum seekers was released, and the Government’s shameful adoption of offshore processing, this announcement did not receive a great deal of coverage in the mainstream media.

Nevertheless, it did provoke an instant backlash within the gay and lesbian community. I was among those who reacted with dismay at the decision by Gillard (or her advisers) to accept an invitation to speak at the ACL’s annual gathering. Two weeks later and I am still upset at the action taken by the ALP leader. Many others are too. Why?

By agreeing to appear at the ACL conference (which presumably also doubles as a fundraiser), the Prime Minister is endorsing the legitimacy of this organisation. Note that I am not necessarily saying she is endorsing each and every view of the ACL (because of course speakers can address audiences with whom they disagree on particular subjects). But simply by being there, Julia Gillard will be endorsing the ongoing participation of a hateful and extremist group in public debate. By turning up, she will give them her imprimatur to continue their campaigns based on prejudice and discrimination.

Make no mistake. The Australian Christian Lobby is a hate group, whose primary reason for existence appears to be founded on the denial of human rights to Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender community. The ACL is to homophobia what One Nation is to racism.

The evidence comes from examining the public comments made by the Lobby. An analysis of the ACL’s website, by Jacob Holman, found that the ACL’s press releases and media mentions made 122 references to campaigning against LGBTI rights over a six month period. This was almost five times more than the next most referenced issue (prostitution and human trafficking). And many more times than any other issue (like, for example, asylum seekers or global poverty and hunger).

Imagine that – denying equality to gay men and lesbians is five times more important than any other issue in the world. That is an unhealthy obsession with denying the rights of a minority group, and shows that homophobia is at the core of the ACL. This is confirmed by some of the more ‘colourful’ tweets from the ACL – including that “Legitimising gay marriage is like legitimising child abuse”, or the infamous tweet by Managing Director Mr Jim Wallace concerning ANZAC Day (“Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!”).

This alone should be sufficient justification for any political leader to rule out attending an ACL event. It certainly would be if their campaigns were against the rights of indigenous people, or people from other races. Well, just as in other matters, the LGBTI community demands equal treatment – our political leaders should refuse to speak at the events of organisations founded on gay-hate in the same way they steer clear of race-hate groups.

Even if the Prime Minister thought it was appropriate to address a christian organisation (and whether that would be appropriate is a subject for another day), it is unclear why she would choose the ACL. This is an organisation which does not speak on behalf of any particular church. It is also reticent when it comes to nominating its membership figures. Indeed, their 2011 Annual Report proudly states the number of facebook fans it has (now 3,550), and the number of twitter followers of itself and Jim Wallace (1230 and 1800 respectively, which are all low for a supposed ‘national peak body’), but does not state how many people are paid up members. This, together with its extreme views, surely makes one question just how representative the ACL is of Australia’s christians.

In fact, on the main issue on which it is active – lobbying against equal marriage – the ACL clearly does not represent mainstream christians. A galaxy poll in August 2011 found that the majority of Australians who identify as christian support same-sex marriage: 53%, with only 41% opposed. It is likely that, just as in other segments of the community, this level of support will continue to grow.

That makes the ACL a self-appointed ‘peak body’, claiming to represent all of Australia’s christians but in reality only directly representing a small number, advocating hateful policies based on discrimination. It should be relegated to the fringes of society, not placed centre-stage by a supposedly ‘progressive’ Prime Minister. That alone is enough to justify the outrage of myself and other activists. But it does not fully explain why Julia Gillard’s decision has cut so deeply.

The reason we feel so completely let down can be found by comparing the Prime Minister’s official participation at an ACL event, with her position on gay and lesbian equality and treatment of supporters of equal marriage. It is no secret that Julia Gillard is one of the key reasons why equal marriage is unlikely to be achieved during the life of this parliament – in addition to her personal opposition, she led the charge for a conscience vote within the ALP virtually guaranteeing that it would not receive sufficient votes to be passed into law.

Compounding this, the Prime Minister has, as far as I am aware, held only one formal meeting with advocates for same-sex marriage during her tenure (the ACL alone had two meetings just in 2011 – as helpfully boasted about in its annual report). Even worse, Julia Gillard took eight months to organise a dinner with same-sex couples wanting to get married, which had been won publicly at a charity auction in June 2011.

This was despite the fact it was supposed to be held within ONE month, and that the same-sex couples involved were flexible with timing, their only request being to hold the dinner before the ALP national conference last December (a request which was not met). And it is almost unimaginable to envisage the PM addressing a major gay and lesbian event or conference any time soon.

Given the issue of same-sex marriage is inevitably one of ‘us v them’, the Prime Minister’s decision to be keynote speaker at the ACL annual conference underscores just whose side she is on. A hint: it is not those who are standing up for equality under the law, and for a progressive and fairer Australia. Instead, yet again, Julia Gillard has chosen to side with the bigots and religious fundamentalists. No wonder it hurts.

Equal Marriage: A failure of political leadership

On this day, exactly eight years ago, the Senate passed the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004. On that Black Friday, as a result of Labor’s capitulation to Howard’s homophobic wedge politics, the overwhelming majority of senators voted to deny same-sex couples the right to marry within Australia, and to ensure that same-sex marriages entered into overseas were not recognised under domestic law. Only the Democrats and the Greens stood up for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians against this egregious attack on their human rights.

In the spring sittings of parliament, which begin tomorrow, our parliamentarians will once again vote on the question of who should be allowed to get married – this time, on one or more bills seeking to overturn Howard’s ban and extend this right to all couples, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity. One thing is certain, the margin of the vote will be much, much closer this time around.

So what has changed in the intervening eight years (other than the demise of the Democrats)? Well, since 2004, the policy argument has been run and won. The trifecta of reasons advanced by the ‘defenders’ of marriage – that marriage is about religion, children and tradition – have been comprehensively debunked, time and time again. With the figleaf of these so-called arguments removed, it has become apparent that those people who oppose marriage equality are simply bigots who cannot abide the thought that gay and lesbian Australians should have the same rights as them.

On the flip-side, the arguments in favour of change – that society should treat same-sex and opposite-sex relationships equally, and in doing so finally accept LGBTI Australians as full citizens – have been successful. So successful, in fact, that a large and growing proportion of the population supports ending marriage discrimination. The Galaxy poll released last Monday found that 64% of voters favour marriage equality, and just as importantly, that a majority of Green (87%), Labor (73%) and even Coalition voters (53%) support legalising same-sex marriage.

And yet, while the margin of the upcoming parliamentary vote will undoubtedly be closer than it was eight years ago, it is highly likely that the bill(s) will ultimately be defeated in both houses, and that the vote may not even be particularly close in the House of Representatives. That would obviously be a very disappointing result for the many advocates of marriage equality, both inside the major political parties and in the community more broadly.

It is also an outcome that requires some explanation – why would our federal parliamentarians reject a social reform that is both right in principle and popular in the electorate? One of the reasons is clearly the cancerous role played by the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) inside the ALP. Nothing seems to motivate SDA National Secretary Joe de Bruyn like ensuring LGBTI Australians remain second-class citizens, and his union certainly has plenty of obedient federal MPs who stand ready to oppose reform.

Another explanation is the exaggerated importance given to the Australian Christian Lobby, both at Parliament House and by the fourth estate. While the ACL represents only a small fraction of Australia’s Christians, for some reason the media keeps reporting, and politicians keep listening to, the incoherent blather of Jim Wallace. This disenfranchises the majority of Australian Christians who actually support marriage equality.

Other reasons for the likely failure of the push for equality include that our federal parliamentarians are both older and more religiously devout than the rest of the population. It should also be noted that the federal parliament has a long history of being achingly slow in delivering LGTBI law reform, often lagging several decades behind public opinion (Exhibit A: 37 years after the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, there is still no federal anti-discrimination legislation for sexual orientation or gender identity).

But none of these reasons is sufficient to explain why the Bandt, Jones and Hanson-Young bills will likely end in defeat. Instead, as is usually the case, the main explanation is much simpler and more obvious. Same-sex marriage will lose in 2012 because the current leaders of the Labor, Liberal and National parties have failed in their obligation to lead – only the leaders of the Greens, with the recently departed Bob Brown, and his replacement, Christine Milne, have fulfilled their responsibilities to represent all members of the Australian community, not just the opposite-sex attracted ones.

Traditionally, major social reforms in Australia have been delivered by the party in Government, usually voting as a bloc, and occasionally with bipartisan support. Even where it was not official Government policy at the time, one or more of the major party leaders would support progressive change and help it achieve majority support. However, the current leaders of the Labor, Liberal and National Parties have all actively worked against marriage equality and are major roadblocks to it being achieved at any point in the near future.

The leader of the National Party, Warren Truss, has not achieved much of note during his political career, and is certainly not renowned for strongly prosecuting public policy arguments, on pretty much anything. True to form, he has not taken a high profile during the same-sex marriage debate. However, he has repeatedly made it clear that he opposes equal marriage rights for the LGBTI community, and will be voting no on the legislation later this year.

Truss’ major ‘achievement’ on this issue might be to lead the only political party whose entire federal parliamentary delegation votes against gay and lesbian equality. That would be disappointing, after NSW state Nationals MP Trevor Khan’s vote to support same-sex marriage in the NSW upper house earlier this year, and betrays a proud history of at least a small number of National Party parliamentarians being progressive on matters of social justice. But the main betrayal is for a political party, which claims it wants to reduce male suicide in the bush, and reverse the population drift from rural areas to the major cities, to oppose one measure which might help to counteract both.

The leader of the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, is even more homophobic than Truss. He has consistently spoken out against extending to right to get married to same-sex couples. In fact, Tony Abbott is so passionately anti-equality that, in addition to employing his own vote against the upcoming bills, he has ruled that the Coalition frontbench be denied a conscience vote. That means the only way for any Coalition figure, from the position of parliamentary secretary upwards, to vote for equality would be to resign their position, which for political animals is a very heavy price to pay. Only backbenchers are exempt, but even they may jeopardise their chance of future promotion should they vote yes.

Tony Abbott’s antipathy is clearly very personal – there is something about equal marriage which challenges either his Catholic faith or his heterosexual privilege, or quite likely both. And his crusade against same-sex marriage has continued even after his sister came out as lesbian, and despite the fact she reportedly wishes to have the right to get married herself. Contrary to the News Ltd puff pieces from earlier this year, which tried to humanise him on the basis that he maintains an ongoing relationship with his sister, I think this makes his position even more despicable. Tony Abbott is so comfortable in denying equality to LGBTI Australians that he thinks even his own sister should have less rights than himself, and that her relationship with her partner should never be recognised as  the same as his. How disgusting.

Nevertheless, the majority of my disapproval is reserved for the leader of my own political party. It is Julia Gillard who ultimately bears more responsibility than any other single figure in Australia, even John Howard, for the fact that Steve and I will still not be able to get married by the end of this year.

It is Gillard who, despite being an atheist, a so-called ‘progressive’ and even someone who originated in the left of the ALP, has espoused some of the most conservative arguments for the preservation of marriage as an exclusive and discriminatory heterosexual institution. It is Gillard who, in addition to saying she will vote against LGBTI human rights herself, also spent enormous political capital to ensure that the ALP would only have a conscience vote on this issue rather than a binding parliamentary vote (unlike the last seven years, when all Labor MPs were expected to vote in unison against marriage equality, there is no such requirement on anti-equality MPs to support change now that the party platform expressly supports marriage equality). This ‘achievement’, secured at last year’s National Conference, almost single-handedly guaranteed that any marriage equality bill in the current parliament would fail.

When you think about it, it is indeed remarkable that the federal Labor leader has been so staunchly anti-equality, especially given the majority of the community, the majority of the ALP membership, the majority of unions, and the majority of ALP parliamentarians all favour same-sex marriage. If adopting this position was done to seek the support of religious fundamentalists in the community, then it will be in vain – they will vote for the Coalition, and parties even further to the political right, come the next federal election as they always have done.

And if it was done to curry favour with religious fundamentalists inside the ALP (both inside caucus, and the head office of the SDA), then it may well have extended her stay in the lodge, but it will not prevent her being replaced whenever they consider her to be expendable. But then, trying to find an explanation for Gillard’s position on same-sex marriage is ultimately a futile gesture, because we will never truly know why until she explains it herself, and that is unlikely to occur until long after she leaves public office.

In the meantime, we must judge the Prime Minister on her actions, and in those she has clearly failed – in her duty to lead for all Australians, in her capacity to envisage a better society, and as a human being who should treat others fairly, equally and with respect. Julia Gillard is already being judged, by myself and countless others, for standing in the way of this progressive reform. She should be in no doubt that history will judge her even more harshly. This damn spot on her political record will never come out.

These three leaders have all failed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and all other Australians who believe in genuine equality, irrespective of sexual orientation and gender identity. Gillard’s failure is the worst because it is the most consequential. If Truss had supported equal marriage, then it would have changed the nature of the debate, showing that conservatives could support human rights, but it may not have changed the final result. If Abbott had supported equality (or even just allowed a conscience vote), then equality may have happened but it was absolutely not guaranteed.

But if Julia Gillard had been a champion of equal marriage, if she had chosen to fight for rather than against equality, then equal marriage would probably have become a reality by the end of 2012. Instead, it appears that LGBTI couples will need to wait another eight years or more before being able to walk down the aisle. Let’s hope that, by then, the major political parties are led by people who understand what leadership means.