Labor MPs Fail The Consultation Test


Almost a year ago, Greens MP Adam Bandt called "on all parliamentarians to gauge their constituents’ views on the issue of marriage equality. Nothing more, nothing less". The motion was supported by the ALP and some of the independents.

It all made sense: opinion polls show a small but stable majority of Australians support same-sex marriage; a clear majority of the federal parliament does not. Both major parties support the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act 2004: it’s a deal between a man and a woman.

How did MPs respond to Bandt’s call? Some of them took the business of gauging the views of their constitutents very seriously and others, well, others took a more half-hearted approach.

There was no clear methodology laid out for how MPs were to consult in their electorates. Australian Marriage Equality lists how MPs solicited community views — and it is clear that some MPs could have tried harder.

New Matilda received emails from people living in the electorate of Wills in inner-northern Melbourne. Their MP is the ALP’s Kelvin Thomson. Thomson’s constituents complained that the consultation conducted in Wills was inadequate.

Thomson publishes a quarterly newsletter called The Wills Report in which he outlines what he’s been up to for the last little while. The Summer 2011 edition contained a survey on same-sex marriage. Constituents were instructed to complete the survey and mail it back to Thomson’s office. Over 100,000 people live in Wills but only 863 responses were received. A clear majority of these supported retaining the definition of the Marriage Act.

New Matilda emailed Thomson’s office to find out whether any other methods had been used to gauge community opinion. Had calls and emails that weren’t attached to the survey been taken into account? The office sent a written response which drew heavily from a May press release on the topic.

In that statement, Thomson said "the fact that fewer than 1 per cent of voters responded suggests that, although this issue matters a great deal to some of my constituents, for most of Wills residents it is not a huge priority issue". This claim is hard to accept for some of Thomson’s constituents who told New Matilda that they were keen to have their say on same-sex marriage — they hadn’t read the MP’s newsletter and had no idea that the survey was being conducted.

Only 31 MPs spoke to the house about the results of their community consultations. Thomson wasn’t one of them.

Some MPs whose electorates responded with a clear show of support — such as Joe Hockey and Tanya Plibersek — stayed quiet.

Many of those who did speak reiterated their own views about marriage, decrying the attitudes and methods of those seeking changes to the laws.

This might seem pretty dispiriting for supporters of marriage equality but Australian Marriage Equality campaign director Rodney Croome says context is the key.

"Up until the election, it was impossible to find an MP who could put words gay and marriage in the same sentence," he said. "I’m not exaggerating, they did not want to talk about it — they hoped the issue would go away. To have MPs conducting surveys where they’re talking about it with their electors is unbelievable from my point of view. They didn’t want this issue to be discussed. Now they’re the ones that are prompting that discussion. And that’s the bottom line. "

Not all MPs failed the community consultation test.

For example, Labor’s Graham Perrett set up an online feedback mechanism and street stalls, and tallied the responses of all those who contacted his office.

Independent Andrew Wilkie advertised his request for community input in The Mercury and in his electoral newsletter, and met with interested parties. He received feedback from 1700 people.

Some unusual parliamentary candour was offered by Ballarat Labor MP, Catherine King, who said that "I am on the public record as supporting the current definition of marriage, but I have to say that belief has been fundamentally challenged by the representations I have had by same-sex couples."

The lacklustre efforts of MPs on same-sex marriage has been taken as a sign that a conscience vote would fail if it was taken today. Even so, Croome thinks there was still some good to the consultations, even if the overall result was disappointing.

"Previously this was seen as an inner-city issue, but now it’s being debated across rural and suburban Australia. And that’s because the local press now have a local angle — what does the local member think, what consultation are they doing. That local angle is really important."

"I know from experience that whenever there’s a discussion about these issues, support for equality increases, even if the discussion is negatively framed. For that alone I think it was a positive outcome."

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.