The ACT Labor party conference, which took place over the weekend, has removed yet another hurdle to the incorporation of gay marriage into the ALP’s platform, and its future realisation as law. Following the passing of two motions in support of equal marriage rights, the ACT joined every other state and territory branch of the party, with the exception of New South Wales — who referred the matter to the national conference, to be held in December this, year rather than make a decision.
It’s no surprise that the ACT branch, historically the ALP’s most progressive, has voted in support of change. On two separate occasions, in 2006 and 2009, the ACT government’s civil unions laws were quashed by John Howard and Kevin Rudd respectively. Although ALP Left faction delegates dominated the conference in numbers, support for gay marriage enjoys cross-factional support in the ACT; Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr, one of the ACT’s chief advocates for gay marriage who undertook a civil ceremony two years ago, is from the right-aligned Centre Coalition faction. Barr’s speech in favour of the first of the two motions, expressing support for equal marriage, not civil unions, reportedly had "people crying in the audience" and received a standing ovation.
The second motion encouraged the national conference to push for a binding caucus vote for federal MPs over a conscience vote, and was more controversial as a result. Under the ALP’s party rules, the caucus may bind MPs to vote in a particular matter in parliament; without it, legislation in favour of gay marriage will not succeed because of an insufficient amount of support among Coalition parliamentarians.
Even in the ACT there were those who weren’t cheering Barr on. One small bloc, described by a Left faction member as "right to lifers", handed out copies of Labor hero Ben Chifley’s famous "Light on the Hill" speech. References in the tract to "man and woman" were meant to persuade delegates to abandon their support for the motion: "We were meant to read it and realise we had been wrong all along".
The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union (SDA) bloc were the only significant group to oppose the vote. SDA national secretary Joe de Bruyn’s opposition to gay marriage is well known and remains the SDA’s position, despite recent attempts by his union’s membership to assert an alternative view. Although they lacked the numbers to influence the ACT vote, the SDA are influential within the right, who have the numbers at a national level.
Isaac Wright, a member of the organising committee for ACT Rainbow Labor, a ginger group inside the party largely responsible for the weekend’s success, says the behaviour of the SDA at an August meeting of the ALP national Right faction held in Brisbane will decide whether the party adopts gay marriage as part of its platform at national conference in December. The right, he believes, is likely to be forced into compromise, for once, and submit to a binding vote, if only to minimise the electoral fallout from more bad publicity.
"The Left won’t want to compromise on this, we’ve fought too hard, and the Right don’t want to see fireworks at conference… but if the SDA go insane, they’ll push to keep a conscience vote."
According to Wright the SDA have bizarrely been suggesting that they would push for a universal system of civil unions to be implemented for both hetero and homosexuals, instead of allowing gays equal rights under the current system. He suggested that it was mere politics, and would be "setting us up to fail", because the issue would have to be delayed until next year’s conference. Besides, Wright says, "I want the same legal standpoint as a heterosexual person under the current system. It’s about equality."
At any rate, Barr, who will be attending the national right’s August meeting, told the Canberra Times he thought further opposition was unlikely, because key figures like Senator Mark Arbib and AWU general secretary Paul Howes supported the cause.
A vote at the national conference isn’t the end, however, because it cannot enforce a binding vote on the federal parliamentary caucus. Wright believes the best outcome would be for any reference to a "conscience vote" to be removed from the ALP platform, because conscience votes should "only be in matters of perceived life and death, like abortion". This would, he thinks, give a strong indication that the party supports change.
There’s still a long way to go before the ALP, and the nation, sees any legislative action on gay marriage. But the overwhelming result in the ACT, where over 90 per cent of delegates were in support of change, and similar results in other states, are positive signs that deeply entrenched political positions may no longer be so solid.
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