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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The ALP never binds on ‘gay issues’

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The ALP never binds on ‘marriage’

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

In essence, Ms Gillard attempted to argue that, because ALP MPs had been given a conscience vote on the Marriage Act 1961 when it was introduced, and when amended by the Family Law Act reforms of the mid-1970s, ALP MPs should have a conscience vote today (full text of the speech here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/national-affairs/julia-gillards-address-to-the-alp-national-conference-on-a-conscience-vote-for-gay-marriage/story-fnba0rxe-1226213001184 ).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Brandis, Tony Abbott, Marriage Equality & CNIs

Marriage Equality Red Background Rings

This week saw the passage of marriage equality in Uruguay, and then New Zealand. Next week will witness France adopt marriage equality legislation. These are the 12th, 13th and 14th countries around the world to have done so.

This spate of activity has provided renewed focus on the issue of marriage equality within Australia. In particular, it has prompted more people to scrutinise the position of Tony Abbott and the Liberal-National Opposition, because they will almost inevitably form Government after the election on September 14th.

Some people have pointed to Tony Abbott’s recent comments to say that he is softening his stance of marriage equality. Specifically, he has said that the matter will be debated inside the Coalition party-room after the election, with the possibility that they may adopt a conscience vote on the matter.

I disagree that this is necessarily a positive development. Instead, I think Abbott’s position is a complete cop-out. It avoids legitimate scrutiny in the lead-up to the poll, leaving voters unclear exactly what he, and his Government, will do once in office.

It also means that people and groups who oppose marriage equality can exert their homophobic influence behind closed doors to ensure that there is no progress. No doubt bigots like the Australian Christian Lobby will be there, actively lobbying in secret, with their decidely un-christian views.

The potential outcomes of this ‘evasive manoeuvre’ by Abbott include that the Coalition’s policy does not change, and that there is therefore no conscience vote next term. We could also end up with civil unions, a so-called compromise which basically nobody wants, but which seems to be favoured by people like Warren Entsch, who has traditionally been one of the more progressive Liberal MPs.

In fact, civil unions seem to me like the most likely outcome of an incoming Liberal-National Government. I genuinely can’t see marriage equality happening under someone as fundamentally conservative as one T Abbott, and that is why I fear we may still be three terms away from Australia-wide reform. Imagine how many countries we will have fallen behind by then?

But, there is one scenario in which we could even go backwards in terms of marriage equality in Australia. I know, that doesn’t seem possible, but there is actually one marriage reform which has been implemented by the current Labor Government which could be wound back under a Coalition Government, in what would be a worst-case scenario.

This would involve the incoming Attorney-General, who will most likely be Senator the Hon George Brandis SC, revoking the January 2012 decision by the then Labor Attorney-General, the Hon Nicola Roxon MP, which allowed Australian LGBTI-inclusive couples to obtain Certificates of No Impediment (CNIs) to marry overseas (in the countries that require them).

In fact, this would simply be the Coalition reverting to the policy which they adopted from 2004 to 2007, when, under then Attorney-General, the Hon Philip Ruddock MP, the Liberal-National Government refused to issue CNIs to same-sex couples, thereby cruelling the chances of most Australian LGBTI-inclusive couples from taking advantage of overseas developments.

To be honest, I don’t know how likely this worst-case scenario is. I would hope that we have come a long way since the end of the Howard era in 2007, and that an incoming Abbott regime would not wind back this particular right.

On the other hand, many Queenslanders probably thought last year that, even if he wasn’t going to be a pro-equality champion, Campbell Newman and the LNP wouldn’t wind back existing LGBTI rights. How wrong they were.

Anyway, that is why I have written the following letter to Shadow Attorney-General Brandis, and copied it to Mr Abbott. Basically, I am asking them to support marriage equality, through party policy or at least a conscience vote. But, if they are unable to do either of those, to at the very least continue to grant CNIs to Australian LGBTI-inclusive couples to marry overseas.

I don’t know what kind of reply to expect. But, as always, whatever I get I will post here.

This is the text of the letter which I sent yesterday:

Dear Senator Brandis

Marriage Equality and Certificates of No Impediment

I am writing to you about the issue of marriage equality, and specifically the policy which the Liberal-National Opposition will take on this issue to the Federal election to be held on 14 September 2013.

I am a 34 year old man who has been together with my wonderful fiancé for almost 5 years – and we have been engaged to be married for more than 3 of those.

All we want is to be able to have a legally-recognised wedding ceremony in front of our family and friends in our own country. All we want is exactly the same rights which other Australians already enjoy.

I strongly encourage the Liberal-National Opposition to support marriage equality as formal policy ahead of the September poll. This would show that the Liberal-National Coalition accept lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians as first-class citizens, deserving of both respect and full legal equality.

Failing that, and as a bare minimum, the Liberal and National Parties should publicly commit to holding a conscience vote on this issue in the next term of Parliament, so that those MPs who wish to support LGBTI equality are free to do so. There have already been several Liberal MPs and candidates who have expressed their desire to take advantage of a non-binding vote to support marriage equality, should one be granted.

Finally, I have a specific question relating to the Attorney-General portfolio. In 2005, your Coalition colleague, the Hon Philip Ruddock MP, as Attorney-General prohibited the granting of Certificates of No Impediment (CNIs) to Australian LGBTI-inclusive couples who wished to marry overseas.

This ban remained in place until overturned by the Hon Nicola Roxon MP on 1 February 2012. This allows Australians couples, and those LGBTI-inclusive couples which include dual or multiple nationalities, to take advantage of the growing number of countries to have implemented marriage equality.

Just this month, Uruguay, New Zealand and France have become the 12th, 13th and 14th countries to accept marriage equality, as part of a growing worldwide movement. Even if the Australian Parliament does not grant marriage equality in the near future, should not mean we are prevented from taking advantage of the equality that already exists overseas.

My question is this: Do you commit a Liberal-National Government to continuing to grant CNIs to LGBTI-inclusive couples who wish to marry overseas?

I would appreciate your reply on all the issues raised in this letter, but in particular, on whether a Liberal-National Government would continue to grant CNIs to all Australian couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Thank you in advance for considering this important issue.

Yours sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie