Submission to Inquiry into Queensland Civil Partnerships Bill

UPDATE 6 January 2016:

 

The Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee tabled its report in Queensland Parliament on 17 November 2015[i].

 

The cross-party Committee failed to support the Bill: “[i]n this instance the committee was not able to reach a majority decision on a motion to recommend that the Bill be passed.”[ii]

 

Liberal-National MPs on the Committee opposed the reintroduction of civil partnerships, and optional ceremonies, to such an extent that they did not even allow submissions and relevant evidence to be included as part of the main report – this information was only included as part of the Government Members Statement of Reservation.

 

It was therefore only because of ALP Committee Members Mark Furner, Jim Madden and Mark Ryan that we know 27 of the 29 submissions made were in favour of reintroducing civil partnerships.[iii]

 

Government Members also reported that, as at 4 November 2015, 6,856 mixed-sex couples had taken advantage of Queensland civil partnership/registered relationship schemes, compared to only 1,227 same-sex couples (thus demonstrating the need to retain alternative relationship recognition options even after marriage equality is finally legislated federally).

 

I am also thankful that Government MPs saw fit to include two quotes from my personal submission:

 

  • “The decision to abolish civil partnership ceremonies, and the haste with which it was achieved, was an unjustified, divisive and mean-spirited act – and I commend the current Queensland Government for taking steps to undo the damage that was done three years ago” on page 12, and

 

  • “In my view, the term ‘civil partnership’ is a much more accurate description of the relationship which exists within couples who wish to have their partnership formally recognised under state law, whereas, to me, ‘registered relationship’ is a more sterile term which merely describes the process of recognition rather than the relationship itself” on page 19 of the report.

 

The Bill was then debated in Queensland’s Legislative Assembly on Thursday 3 December 2015. It was supported by all Labor MPs as a piece of Government legislation.

 

Somewhat surprisingly, given the behaviour of their MPs on the Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee, the LNP offered a conscience vote to its MPs and half chose to exercise their vote to support the Bill, meaning that it passed by a large majority: 64 votes in favour, compared to only 22 votes against.

 

Once again, I am grateful that Government MPs quoted my submission – both the Member for Brisbane Central, Ms Grace Grace, and the Member for Ipswich West, Mr Jim Madden, used the first quote highlighted above.

 

The Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Act 2015 received Royal Assent on 17 December 2015, and its provisions, restoring civil partnerships and once again allowing couples to hold a formal civil partnership ceremony if they so choose, will commence sometime early this year.

 

Thankfully, one sad, recent chapter of Queensland’s LGBTI history is now closed. Although there remain a variety of areas which still require action by the Palaszczuk Government, including (among others):

 

  • Equalising the age of consent for anal intercourse
  • Introducing adoption equality
  • Abolishing the homosexual advance or ‘gay panic’ defence and
  • Expunging historical homosexual convictions.

 

ORIGINAL POST:

Submissions to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Queensland’s Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 close tomorrow (Monday 19 October 2015). Full details on the inquiry, including how to submit, can be found here: <https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/work-of-committees/committees/LACSC/inquiries/current-inquiries/07-RelationshipsCPOAAB15 Here’s my own submission:

Research Director

Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee

Parliament House

George St

Brisbane QLD 4000

lacsc@parliament.qld.gov.au

Sunday 18 October 2015

Dear Committee Members

INQUIRY INTO THE RELATIONSHIPS (CIVIL PARTNERSHIPS) AND OTHER ACTS AMENDMENT BILL 2015

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this inquiry that is considering the details of the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015.

I write in support of the Bill, for two main reasons:

  1. The term ‘civil partnerships’ is strongly preferred when compared to the term ‘registered relationships’.
  2. The Act restores the right of couples to enter into a civil partnership by holding a civil partnership ceremony if they so choose.

The first point may seem comparatively minor, considering it relates only to nomenclature, but terminology is important, particularly when it describes something as personal as the relationship between two members of a couple.

In my view, the term ‘civil partnership’ is a much more accurate description of the relationship which exists within couples who wish to have their partnership formally recognised under state law, whereas, to me, ‘registered relationship’ is a more sterile term which merely describes the process of recognition rather than the relationship itself.

It is also my view that the term civil partnership is more likely to be understood, and accepted, by members across the community, whereas the term registered relationship is less likely to attract widespread social acceptance from others.

The second reason why I support the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 is more substantive, and that is because it restores the ability of couples to enter into a civil partnership by holding a civil partnership ceremony.

Importantly, it is not compulsory – couples that wish to pursue this option will be able to do so, while other couples will be able to enter into a civil partnership without holding a ceremony.

I wholeheartedly agree with the description of this reform contained in the letter from the Director-General of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General, Mr David Mackie, to the Committee dated 1 October 2015:

“This is being done to support the dignity and equality of each and every Queenslander by giving them the opportunity to formally declare their commitment to their significant.”

In fact, it is difficult to conceive any rational justification to oppose these provisions – after all, who would want to actively deny their fellow citizens the choice to hold a civil partnership ceremony, if that is what the couple desired?

And yet, that is exactly what the majority of Queensland Members of Parliament did in June 2012, voting to strip away the ability of these couples to hold a formal ceremony. Not only that, the removal of these rights was such a high priority for the (then) newly-elected Newman Liberal National Government that is was enacted within three months of its landslide victory.

The decision to abolish civil partnership ceremonies, and the haste with which it was achieved, was an unjustified, divisive and mean-spirited act – and I commend the current Queensland Government for taking steps to undo the damage that was done three years ago.

I also commend the Palaszczuk Labor Government because, in introducing the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015, it is doing what it can within the powers of a state government to recognise the diversity of relationships that exist in contemporary society.

With the High Court finding in December 2013 that only the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to legislate for marriage equality, but the majority of Members and Senators of that Parliament showing their continued unwillingness to recognise the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, it is pleasing to see a state government providing the opportunity for all couples, including LGBTI couples, to enter into civil partnerships – and offering the choice to hold a civil partnership ceremony, too.

Even after marriage equality is finally enacted by our recalcitrant federal parliamentarians, the ability to enter into a civil partnership under state law will remain an important option for those couples who do not wish to marry for whatever reason (and that includes both cisgender heterosexual couples, and LGBTI couples).

For all of these reasons, I support the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015, and urge Committee Members, and indeed all Queensland MPs, to ensure it is passed by the Parliament as a matter of priority.

Finally, I note that the renaming of civil partnerships, including restoring the right of couples to enter into a civil partnership by holding a civil partnership ceremony if they so choose, is just one of several important measures which are required to ensure LGBTI people are finally treated equally under Queensland law.

Other necessary reforms include abolition of the gay panic defence, the introduction of adoption equality, the equalisation of the age of consent for anal intercourse and the expungement of historical convictions for gay sex. I look forward to these issues, and more, being addressed by the Queensland Parliament in the near future.

Thank you in advance for considering this submission. Should the Committee require additional information, or wish to clarify any of the information above, I can be contacted at the details below.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath introduced the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 in September.

Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath introduced the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 in September.

[i] Final Report: https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/LACSC/2015/07-RelationshipsCPOAAB15/07-rpt-014-17Nov2015.pdf

[ii] Ibid, p4.

[iii] Ibid, p12.

Submission on AHRC Proposal to Create a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’

Mr Tim Wilson

Australian Human Rights Commissioner

C/- rights@humanrights.gov.au

Friday 25 September 2015

Dear Mr Wilson

Submission on Religious Freedom Roundtable Proposal

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on your proposal to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’, including on its draft ‘Statement of purposes and Guiding principles.’

From the outset, I would like to express my scepticism of the need for, and purpose of, this Roundtable.

While your call for submissions[i] at least briefly acknowledges the biggest problem in this area (“how to balance religious freedom with other human rights”), the remainder instead appears to focus on the ‘expansion’ of religious freedom, with the explicit goal of developing a body of policy work “that is designed to enlarge respect for religious freedom and proper consideration of its importance in future policy development and law reform.”[ii]

This is despite the fact that no clear need is articulated for such ‘enlargement’.

Indeed, as suggested by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) in its recent Interim Report as part of its own Freedoms Inquiry:

“[g]enerally speaking, Australians enjoy significant religious freedom, particularly by comparison to other jurisdictions. Australians enjoy the freedom to worship and practise religion, as well as the freedom not to worship or engage in religious practices.”[iii]

The ALRC went on to comment that:

“[t]here are few Commonwealth laws that can be said to interfere with freedom of religion. The Law Council of Australia advised that ‘it has not identified any laws imposing any specific restriction on the freedom of religion’ and ‘that any specific encroachment is likely to arise in balancing religious freedom with other protected freedoms, such as freedom of speech’.”[iv]

Indeed, it is difficult to think of many areas where religious freedoms are genuinely encroached upon, with the exception of the mistreatment of muslim Australians, by both Governments and other Australians, in the 14 years post September 11 (and it is difficult to see how this Roundtable would help address that issue), or the ongoing abuse of refugees fleeing religious persecution who are detained, processed and resettled on Nauru and Manus Island (although sadly there is nothing unique about this mistreatment, with all refugees who arrive by boat abused by Governments, of both persuasions, in this way).

On the other hand, it is easy to identify ways in which ‘religious freedom’ is currently exercised to discriminate against other Australians, and in this way cause significant harm to them and their rights.

The most obvious, and egregious, example of this is the extremely broad exceptions under most Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws that permit religious organisations to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians.

In the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, these exceptions are contained in sections 23(3)(b), 37 and 38, with sub-section 37(1)(d) revealing exactly how broad this special right to discriminate is in practice:

“[n]othing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

In practice, this means that the Commonwealth Government tacitly endorses discrimination by religious organisations against gay teachers, lesbian students, bisexual people accessing health of community services and transgender aged care employees, among many others.

There are also a wide variety of more indirect ways in which ‘religious freedom’ has been used, and continues to be used, to oppress lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

This obviously includes ongoing advocacy by a number of mainstream christian churches, as well as by homophobic groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, to seek continued discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status through the secular Marriage Act 1961.

But it also includes things like campaigning to ensure the National Health & Physical Education Curriculum does not include content that is genuinely-inclusive of LGBTI students (thus denying their right to health information), or calling on Governments to abolish the national Safe Schools Coalition, a program with the explicit goal of reducing homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic bullying.

For all of the above reasons, I call on you to reconsider the need to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’ and that, if you do, to amend the scope of such a Roundtable to ensure that its primary focus is on addressing the many ways in which ‘religious freedom’ is currently used as a weapon, by some elements within society, to legitimise homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination that is, and should be considered, unacceptable.

Before I turn to the ‘Statement of purposes and Guiding principles’ I would like to make two additional points about the information contained in the call for submissions.

First, in relation to the dot point “[p]reserving religious freedom when an organisation receives taxpayer’s money to provide a public service”, I would note that nearly all religious organisations receive taxpayer’s money through the generous exemptions from taxation law which they currently enjoy.

I would also note that this dot point appears to relate to the ‘carve-out’ to existing exceptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which has the effect of prohibiting discrimination by religious-operated aged care services against LGBT people accessing their services, where that service receives Commonwealth funding.[v]

In my view, this carve-out is not wide enough – there is no justification for these services to be legally permitted to discriminate against LGBT employees, either.

But, most importantly, from my perspective it is not the involvement of Government funding that means such discrimination should be prohibited – it is the fact that, employment and service provision in the public sphere, which includes the operation of aged care services, should be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. Full stop.

Second, in relation to the dot point “[b]alancing the right to religious freedom and equality before the law – what are the areas of shared agreement?” I note that the right not to be discriminated against (or ‘freedom from discrimination’), is in fact much broader than just ‘equality before the law’, which could be narrowly-construed as meaning equality under legislation and/or before the courts, rather than, say, equal access to employment or service provision.

Specific Comments Regarding the Draft Statement of purpose and Guiding principles[vi]

The ‘Statement of purpose’ describes the Religious Freedom Roundtable as a forum “for representatives of religious and spiritual communities to have ongoing engagement and dialogue about freedom of religion, conscience and belief (‘religious freedom’) and its interaction with public policy in 21st century Australia.”

Given the discussion above, and the fact that LGBTI Australians are the people most negatively affected by the exercise of ‘religious freedom’ in Australia, it seems odd to establish a roundtable to look at these issues and yet not have LGBTI organisations at the table.

This omission could be seen as indicating that the Religious Freedom Roundtable is in fact concerned with prioritising or ‘privileging’ the rights of religious organisations over and above the rights of other people, including those of LGBTI Australians.

Under the heading ‘Mutual respect’, in the first paragraph, you note that “[religious freedom] interacts with other fundamental freedoms including freedoms of thought, conscience, speech and association, as well as property rights.”

In response, I reiterate the position from my submission to last year’s Rights and Responsibilities Consultation that highlighting these rights, simply because they are ‘traditional’ or even just older, but omitting other rights such as the right to non-discrimination which in practice is just as important, is unjustified.[vii]

In short, “prioritising certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.”[viii]

Finally, I would like to make the following points in relation to specific ‘Guiding principles’:

Principle 1: Religious freedom is fundamental to the Australian way of life, and should be treated equally to all other human rights and freedoms.

and

Principle 2: Religious freedom is a fundamental human right that should be respected and not limited unless it infringes on the rights of others.

I agree with these statements, and particularly the observations that religious freedom should be ‘treated equally to all other human rights and freedoms’ and respected ‘unless it infringes on the rights of others’.

In practice, this should mean that the right to non-discrimination should be ‘treated equally’ to the right to religious freedom.

More importantly, it means that, given exceptions to anti-discrimination law allowing religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT Australians in health, education, community services and aged care are clearly an infringement on the right to non-discrimination in public life, and that they cause significant harm to these people, such exceptions should be abolished.

Principle 3: Religious freedom has an essential and important role in our public life or civic affairs to contribute to the moral and spiritual guidance of our nation; and faith is as legitimate basis for participation in public life and civic affairs as any other.

I disagree with this statement for two reasons. First, as an atheist, and noting that Australia is a secular state, I reject the notion that ‘our nation’ as a whole necessarily requires ‘moral and spiritual guidance’ from organised religion.

Second, while people should not be prohibited from participation in public life on the basis of their religious beliefs, I do not believe it is appropriate for religious individuals and/or organisations to seek to impose ‘religious laws’ on their fellow citizens.

An example of this is the ongoing campaign by christian fundamentalists to impose a narrow religious interpretation of marriage on their fellow citizens through the secular Marriage Act 1961, in this way denying the human rights of those who do not share the same faith – and even of other christians who do not subscribe to their particular homophobic definition of this institution.

Thus, while participation in public life and civic affairs should be open, such participation should not be abused by using religion as a tool to oppress others.

Principle 6: No Australians should be unnecessarily excluded from participation in public life or civic affairs because of their faith, age, disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, or other irrelevant personal attribute.

While I agree with the underlying sentiment of this principle, I find it disappointing that, as both the ‘Freedom Commissioner’ and also the Commissioner with responsibility for LGBTI issues, you have not explicitly mentioned gender identity or intersex status as part of this principle. These two protected attributes from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 should be included.

Principle 8: When considering issues that affect the rights of others, it is necessary to provide equal opportunities to enlarge and consider their perspectives with the objective of accommodating and enlarging the human rights of all.

This principle appears to contradict the Statement of purpose, described above – specifically, given most contentious issues surrounding religious freedom in fact concern its intersection with the right to non-discrimination of LGBTI Australians, it is objectionable that LGBTI people and organisations are not included in this roundtable from the beginning.

Principle 10: Individuals and communities of faith will continue to constructively work with government and other public agencies to uphold the law and improve Australia’s moral and spiritual guidance.

As with principle 3, above, as an atheist I reject the implication that Australia, as a secular nation, necessarily requires ‘moral and spiritual guidance’ from organised religion.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide comments on your proposal to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’, including on its draft ‘Statement of purposes and Guiding principles.’

If you would like to clarify any of the above, or require further information, please contact me at the details below.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[i] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/projects/religious-freedom-roundtable-call-submissions

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] ALRC, “Freedoms Inquiry Interim Report”, August 2015, para 4.1, page 97. See http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/alrc127

[iv] Ibid, para 4.39, page 104.

[v] Sub-section 37(2): Paragraph (1)(d) does not apply to an act or practice of a body established for religious purposes if: (a) the act or practice is connected with the provision, by the body, of Commonwealth-funded aged care; and (b) the act or practice is not connected with the employment of persons to provide that aged care.

[vi] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/DRAFT_ReligiousFreedomRoundtable_2015_AHRC_1.pdf

[vii] See my full submission here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/10/27/submission-to-rights-responsibilities-2014-consultation/

[viii] Ibid.

No Referendum. No Plebiscite. Just Pass the Bill.

The following is my submission to the current Senate Inquiry into whether there should be a referendum or plebiscite into marriage equality. As you can tell from the title of this post, I am strongly against both.

For more information, or to make your own submission, go here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Marriage_Plebiscite

Committee Secretary

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

PO Box 6100

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

Saturday 29 August 2015

Dear Committee Members

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO “THE MATTER OF A POPULAR VOTE, IN THE FORM OF A PLEBISCITE OR REFERENDUM, ON THE MATTER OF MARRIAGE IN AUSTRALIA”

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission on the question of whether Australia should hold a ‘public vote’ on the issue of marriage equality, and if so what form and timing such a vote should take.

My overall response to this question is that a marriage equality plebiscite or referendum would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore should not be held.

My detailed responses to the terms of reference to the inquiry are set out below.

a. An assessment of the content and implications of a question to be put to electors

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

b. An examination of the resources required to enact such an activity, including the question of the contribution of Commonwealth funding to the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

c. An assessment of the impact of the timing of such an activity, including the opportunity for it to coincide with a general election

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

d. Whether such an activity is an appropriate method to address matters of equality and human rights

It is absolutely inappropriate to use a ‘public vote’ to determine whether all people should be treated equally under the law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The recognition of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should not be subject to a popularity contest, and only granted if enough people express the view, through such a vote, that we are ‘worthy’.

In circumstances where it is not already formally recognised, the right for all couples to be married under secular law should be recognised in the usual place and in the usual way – in our nation’s parliament.

Turning specifically to the question of a referendum, the High Court has already found that the Commonwealth Parliament has the constitutional power to introduce marriage equality.

In the 2013 case overturning the Australian Capital Territory’s same-sex marriage laws, the High Court stated, unequivocally, that: “[w]hen used in s51(xxi), “marriage” is a term which includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.”[i]

This makes those who argue for a ‘constitutional referendum’ on this subject, or who even suggest that one could be held, seem to be one of two things, either:

  1. Completely lacking in understanding of the Constitution, and the Australian system of government generally (and arguably dangerously ill-informed where such people are current parliamentarians)

Or

  1. Motivated by a desire to block the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex Australians by whatever means necessary, even by holding an unnecessary referendum, solely because it imposes a higher threshold for success (the requirement to be passed by both a majority of voters, and a majority of voters in a majority of states).

While there are fewer legal arguments against holding a plebiscite on marriage equality, there remain strong reasons why it would be inappropriate.

First, as described above, whether human rights are recognised or not should not be determined through a popularity contest.

Second, the result of any such plebiscite would not be binding on the Parliament, and there would obviously be no requirement for a successful result to be recognised immediately (as demonstrated by the 1977 plebiscite on the national anthem, which was not legislated until 1984).

Third, and related to the above, the suggestion to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality appears to be nothing more than a delaying tactic, designed to hold off the prospect of full equality for LGBTI Australians for at least another term, or more (especially given Prime Minister Abbott has expressed his desire for it to be held after the next federal election, and even then after the referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians).

Fourth, and finally, it should be noted that the same people who are arguing for a plebiscite now (including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Deputy Liberal Leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Treasurer Joe Hockey) voted against marriage equality in the Parliament in August 2004 and, joined by Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, did so again in September 2012.

At no point did they express the view that parliamentarians voting on marriage equality was somehow inappropriate – at least while the Parliament was voting ‘No’.

Indeed, in May, responding to the Irish marriage equality referendum and rejecting a similar proposal here, Prime Minister Abbott said that: “questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament”.[ii]

The only thing that appears to have changed is that, unlike 2004 and 2012, and were a Liberal Party conscience vote to be granted, marriage equality legislation would have a reasonable chance of success in 2015.

Which only makes the decision to reject the concept of a parliamentary vote, in favour of a plebiscite, appear even worse.

It is not just moving the goalposts, it is changing the fundamental rules of the game, to thwart opponents who simply want the right to be treated equally under the law.

It is beyond unreasonable, it is hypocritical and grossly unfair, and should be rejected.

A referendum or plebiscite on marriage equality would also be extraordinarily wasteful.

Public estimates of the cost of holding such a vote (particularly when it is a standalone ballot, which is the preference of Prime Minister Abbott) have put the figure at in excess of $100 million.[iii]

This is extraordinarily expensive, particularly given introducing marriage equality is something that could be done by our nation’s Parliament in the ordinary course of events, at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, if the Abbott Liberal-National Government genuinely wants to spend $100-150 million on issues of concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, then might I suggest the following:

  • Implementing the reforms recommended by the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, to end this gross violation of human rights
  • Removing out-of-pocket medical expenses for transgender Australians
  • Increasing funding for the Safe Schools Coalition to ensure it reaches students in every school across the country and
  • Funding housing services for LGBTI young people, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

All of these suggestions, and indeed a great many others, would be better uses of public monies than throwing millions of dollars away on an unnecessary, inappropriate and wasteful plebiscite or referendum.

In addition to the above reasons, it should also be acknowledged that a public vote on marriage equality has the potential to be incredibly divisive, and therefore dangerous.

This is because any referendum or plebiscite would necessarily stir up homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in the community, and especially in the media.

We experienced a small taste of what such a debate would look like this week when the Daily Telegraph newspaper devoted its front page, and several pages thereafter, to attacking the idea that students should be exposed to the reality that rainbow families exist, and are normal (with one columnist even ‘bravely’ telling a 12 year old girl that her family was not normal).

The only positive aspect of this outrageous and horrific ‘beat-up’ is that it has gradually receded in prominence, replaced by other stories as part of the regular news cycle.

Unfortunately, the holding of a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would all but ensure that such stories were featured prominently for days, weeks or even months on end.

We should not underestimate the damage that such a vote would cause.

Research consistently finds that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, and have substantially higher rates of suicide than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, with one of the main causes being the discrimination and prejudice to which they are exposed every day.

A bitter and protracted public debate, about whether who they are should be treated equally under the law or not, would inevitably have a significant, negative impact on their mental health.

But they would not be the only ones adversely affected. A nasty campaign against the equality of LGBTI families, which would be an inevitable part of any public vote, would also negatively impact on the wellbeing of the children of these families.

Indeed, nearly all LGBTI Australians would probably be affected in some way by the holding of a public vote to determine whether we should continue to be treated as second class citizens by our own country or not. Such a vote should not be held.

A plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive. It should be comprehensively rejected by this Inquiry, and by the Commonwealth Parliament.

e. The terms of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive.

I therefore call on all Senators to reject the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate, and to resist any and all attempts to hold a plebiscite or referendum on this subject in the future.

f. Any other related matters

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to hold a referendum on something which the High Court has already found is within the power of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Nor is there any justification to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. I am 37 years old, and there has not been a federal plebiscite in my lifetime.

It is bizarre, and offensive, that the first plebiscite since 1977 should be held to determine whether my relationship should be treated equally under the law.

My fiancé Steven and I recently celebrated our 7th anniversary. We have been engaged for more than five and a half years. We, like thousands of other LGBTI couples in Australia, are done waiting.

We have gone to protests, we have written submissions, we have commented in the media, we have patiently (and sometimes less than patiently) campaigned for change.

Finally, when the numbers for reform appear to exist within the Parliament, if not this year then certainly after the 2016 election (irrespective of who wins), Prime Minister Abbott and the Liberal-National Government he leads seek to change the rules.

Despite voting against my equality for more than a decade, without reservation, he and his colleagues now believe that this is not something which can be determined by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Plainly, they are wrong. Marriage equality can and should be passed, in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the same places where it was banned in August 2004.

And, if our current House of Representatives MPs and Senators will not do their job, if they refuse to legislate for the equal right to marry for all Australians irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then the Australian people must do their job next year and vote them out. Because LGBTI Australians have waited long enough.

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

[i] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55, para 38.

[ii] “Gay Marriage Referendum in Australia Dismissed by Tony Abbott”, ABC News Online, 25 May 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-24/leaders-dismiss-same-sex-marriage-referendum-in-australia/6493180

[iii] “Williams said the average cost of a referendum was between $100m and $150m outside an election and half that if it was held in conjunction with an election”: “Tony Abbott says no to referendum on same-sex marriage, despite Irish vote”, Guardian Australia, 24 May 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/24/tony-abbott-says-no-to-referendum-on-same-sex-marriage-despite-irish-vote

Will Christine Forster Apologise for her Pre-Election Column?

Ms Christine Forster

cforster@cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au

Monday 24 August 2015

Dear Ms Forster,

I am writing to you concerning an opinion piece you wrote before the 2013 Federal Election for the Star Observer called “Vote Liberal for Real Change”.[i]

Specifically, you began by writing:

“You only have one vote on September 7 and this election is the most important in a generation.

“For many of us in the GLBTI community marriage equality is a key political issue at a federal level and the positions of the two major parties on this important question are virtually the same. Both are leaving it up to their new members of parliament to decide, after the election” [emphasis added].

It was abundantly clear at the time that this description was inaccurate – that in no way, shape or form could the positions of Labor and the Coalition be described as “virtually the same”.

Indeed, as I commented on your opinion piece at the time:

“The second paragraph in this op-ed is rubbish. No, Ms Forster, the positions of the two major parties on this important question are NOT virtually the same.

“One major party has a party platform in favour of marriage equality, rules which guarantee its MPs a conscience vote, a majority of sitting MPs who voted in favour of marriage equality just last year, a Prime Minister who supports it, and a commitment to reintroduce a Bill within 100 days.

“The other – your brother’s Coalition – has left it up to whoever is elected at this election to decide whether to even have a conscience vote (with the possibility that there is not a conscience vote/all its MPs are forced to vote against), a Leader who continues to oppose marriage equality, and who does not expect a Bill to even arise in the next parliament, and not a single sitting MP who voted for marriage equality in 2012 (despite Liberals always saying that backbenchers can vote freely on every Bill).

“I don’t know what your definition of ‘virtually the same’ is, but it is in no dictionary that I can find.”

Unfortunately, the description that you used then has turned out to be even more inaccurate now, almost two years later.

The Labor Opposition today is led by a supporter of marriage equality, who has made a similar commitment to his predecessor (to introduce a Bill within 100 days, if elected), with the vast majority of ALP MPs and Senators indicating they will vote in favour of marriage equality when it next comes to a vote.

Meanwhile, the Liberal-National Government remains led by a Prime Minister who is strongly opposed to the full legal equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and a Coalition party room that spoke two to one against even allowing a conscience vote on the subject, meaning only a small handful of Coalition MPs will be able to vote in favour of reform.

To make matters worse, the Abbott Liberal-National Government is apparently intent on denying a House of Representatives vote on this matter during the current term of parliament (by using its numbers on the Selection of Bills Committee), instead concentrating on finding ways to defer the issue for yet another term, even considering the option of an inappropriate and unnecessary constitutional referendum to help ‘stack the decks’ against marriage equality.

Given all of the above, I have two simple questions for you:

  1. Do you now concede that your pre-election opinion piece was inaccurate?
  2. Will you apologise to anyone who was silly enough to actually believe what you wrote?

I look forward to receiving your correspondence addressing the above questions.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[i] 4 September 2013: http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/election-opinion-vote-liberal-for-real-change/108960

Christine Forster (source: ABC).

Christine Forster (source: ABC).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What ALP National Conference Delegates Should Hear About Marriage Equality

While I am a member of the Labor Party (and have been for more than 13 years), I have not been elected as a delegate to this year’s ALP National Conference, which will be held in Melbourne next weekend (Friday 24 to Sunday 26 July).

If I had been, and if I had the privilege of speaking during the Rules debate scheduled for Sunday afternoon, this is the speech I would like to give:

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

It’s time for the Australian Labor Party to fully support the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

It’s time to say – without equivocation or qualification – that the relationships of LGBTI people must be treated in exactly the same way under secular law as their cisgender heterosexual counterparts.

It’s time to take the Platform position, which already supports marriage equality in principle, and make it binding on the members of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

The Labor Party can bind on marriage equality.

In fact, for more than two thirds of the time marriage equality has been debated in our Parliament, the ALP has bound its MPs and Senators on this issue – from Howard’s homophobic ban in August 2004, which we shamefully supported, until the last National Conference in December 2011, Labor MPs and Senators were bound to vote against it.

With a large majority of Party members, of Labor MPs and Senators – and, above all, of the Australian community – supporting amendments to the Marriage Act to ensure it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, there is absolutely no reason why we should not bind in support in 2015.

There is nothing so unusual or exceptional about marriage equality that dictates that normal Party processes, based on the principles of solidarity and collective action, and which ordinarily demand a bound vote, should not apply to this issue.

Despite what some delegates might try to argue, religious freedom is not a legitimate argument to reject a binding vote.

The introduction of marriage equality will not have an adverse impact on religious freedom. Under every Bill proposed to date, ministers of religion will be free to decline to officiate LGBTI weddings.

In fact, the introduction of marriage equality will enhance religious freedom because it will allow those organisations and faiths that want to marry LGBTI couples to do so.

As Tony Burke notes: “Those who want to marry will be able to do so. Those who do not want the change will be unaffected by it.”

That includes individual parliamentarians who want to oppose marriage equality simply because it does not accord with their personal faith.

If legislation sought to impose marriage equality within religion, to change the official teachings of their faith, they might have an argument.

But it does not. Again, as Tony Burke observes: “The various religious faiths will continue to have their own views and rules around marriage. The law of Australia needs to respect the freedom of people to practice their faith and it will.”

Viewed in this way, it is clear that MPs and Senators demanding a conscience vote in order to oppose equality in secular law are not seeking to exercise their ‘religious freedom’ – they are seeking to impose their personal religious views onto others.

And, as a secular political party, we should vigorously resist their attempts.

The Labor Party should bind on marriage equality.

It should bind because introducing this reform would address one of the major outstanding forms of discrimination against LGBTI Australians – and the ALP should always stand united in addressing discrimination against the marginalised.

In the words of Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek, the question is simple: “Do we support legal discrimination against one group in this country? Or do we not?”

It should bind because the ability to found a family, and to have one’s relationships recognised under secular law, is more than just a natural desire, it is a fundamental human right.

Human rights should not be ‘optional’, and their recognition should not be left up to the whim of individual Labor Party MPs and Senators, as it is under a conscience vote.

As my old boss, Senator John Faulkner, told the 2011 National Conference when this same question was being debated: “A conscience vote on human rights is unconscionable.”

It should bind because the current Party Rule – which says “Conference resolves that the matter of same-sex marriage can be freely debated at any state or federal forum of the Australian Labor Party, but any decision reached is not binding on any member of the Party” – is not only wrong, it is offensive.

Commitments to achieve human rights should not come with an asterisk.

‘Terms and conditions’ should not apply when what is at stake is the equality of people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

It is offensive that special Party Rules continue to allow individual Labor MPs and Senators to vote against those rights, that equality. These provisions should be permanently removed from our governing document.

It should bind because it is unjust to impose solidarity on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex members of the Party, and to not offer it in return.

It is unjust to demand loyalty, to make Senator Penny Wong vote against her own community’s rights for seven and a half years, and Senator Louise Pratt for three and a half – and then deny that same loyalty when the Platform position changes to one of support for equality.

Solidarity, and loyalty, cannot be continually demanded of us but not reciprocated.

Finally, it should bind because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Labor members are sick and tired of having our rights being sacrificed as the price of ‘Party unity’.

Granting a conscience vote on marriage equality should not be a ransom that is paid to parliamentarians who threaten to quit the Party rather than be compelled to vote to recognise the love of LGBTI couples.

If denying the legal equality of others is more important to them than adhering to Party solidarity – something they expect of others, but are unwilling to offer themselves – then they should leave. The rest of us should no longer give in to their blackmail.

The Labor Party must bind on marriage equality.

It must bind to finish the job that was left half-done by our predecessors in 2011, who voted to change the Platform, but narrowly failed to make that position binding.

That failure has had real adverse consequences – a bound vote in September 2012 could have seen marriage equality passed last term, putting an end to the painfully long wait of LGBTI couples simply to enjoy the same legal rights that are taken for granted by others.

Had the last National Conference decidedly differently, some Australians need not have died waiting for their relationships to be recognised by their own country – as some inevitably, and tragically, have done.

Adopting a binding vote now would demonstrate that we acknowledge we got it wrong in December 2011, and, in doing so, we apologise.

But this is about more than making up for past mistakes – it is about the present, too.

We must bind to ensure the Australian Labor Party does everything within its own power to support marriage equality in 2015.

We cannot control what Tony Abbott, and Warren Truss, and their respective Parties do on this issue – if we could, they would have adopted a conscience vote during the three and a half years in which we have already had one.

What we can control is our own Party and its Rules. What we can control, by adopting a binding vote, is ensuring as many ALP MPs and Senators as possible vote in favour of marriage equality the next time it comes before the Parliament.

That is what we are accountable for, and should be judged on accordingly.

And we must bind for the future. If marriage equality is rejected this term – and that remains a genuine possibility – the Australian Labor Party must be able to go to the next election telling the people that, if elected, it will pass marriage equality as quickly as possible.

The only way that it will be able to make that commitment is by adopting a binding vote at this Conference.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have waited long enough already – too long, actually – and, if legislation is unsuccessful this year, and we win in 2016, they will be looking to us to finally pass this reform.

If, as a newly-elected Government, we are unable to do so because too many Labor MPs and Senators exercise a conscience vote against the rights of their fellow citizens, we will left looking completely ineffectual – and, much more significantly, LGBTI Australians will be let down yet again.

Labor must be able to promise to introduce marriage equality next term – and, just as importantly, it must be able to deliver it.

Because only in that way can the Labor Party truly claim that it will represent, and govern for, all Australians.

Only by adopting a binding vote can we say that the famous ‘Light on the Hill’ shines for everyone – and that we will use its light to overcome the darkness that is homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia, both in the law and in society.

Only by adopting a binding vote can the Australian Labor Party say that it is whole-heartedly committed to creating a country that is free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

It’s time to make that commitment, here at this Conference, and then again later this year on the floor of Parliament.

Delegates, it’s time to bind in support of marriage equality.

Senator Penny Wong at the 2011 ALP National Conference in Sydney

Senator Penny Wong at the 2011 ALP National Conference in Sydney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is also incredibly useful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From his statement:

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

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

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

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

Again, from his statement:

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

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

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

So, according to Mr Burke’s own words:

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

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

Answer: they can’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only ‘Albo’ had left it at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor leadership divides over compulsory same-sex marriage yes vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This situation is indignity writ large.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The choice between the two should be easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the ALP does control is its own internal rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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