A Conscience Vote Is The Only Way


Tony Abbott tells us over and over again that he is not homophobic, that his religion doesn’t influence his politics and that he’s not “Dr No”.

But he’s flubbed one of his best opportunities to put his words into practice. In the wake of public support for marriage equality from Melbourne’s Liberal Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, and from two of his own daughters, Tony Abbott has not only ruled out supporting the reform, but also refuses to allow a conscience vote.

Because the ALP has already conducted a conscience vote, and most of Labor’s Catholic right seems intent on voting against reform, marriage equality only has a fighting chance if the Coalition has a conscience vote too.

In short, Abbott’s refusal to grant a conscience vote means reform is virtually impossible at a federal level. But his decision has negative consequences for the Coalition as well as for marriage equality. Abbott’s rationale for not allowing a conscience vote is that excluding gays from marriage is party policy. Only when the party room decides to change that policy can there be a conscience vote.

This is confusing. Does it mean there won’t be a conscience vote until the Coalition supports marriage equality — something that seems virtually impossible? Or does it mean the party room can decide to have no policy on marriage equality (again unlikely) in which case there’d be no need for a conscience vote?

Besides, it is clearly within a Liberal leader’s power to grant a conscience vote on marriage equality despite the party’s anti-equality stance, as several state Liberal leaders, including Barry O’Farrell and Colin Barnett have done already. Are we to believe Abbott has less power on this issue than his state counterparts?

Abbott’s stance is also inconsistent. Up until his latest statement, his rationale for not allowing a conscience vote was that he made a promise to that effect before the last election. Is that promise now void? Did it mean anything to begin with?

Abbott's refusal to allow a conscience vote is inconsistent with Liberal Party values such as individual freedom. It seems absurd that Labor, the party of collective decision-making, allows MPs freedom of conscience on marriage equality while the Liberal Party does not.

Abbott has now entered the same marriage equality space occupied by Julia Gillard — he is simply not believable. But the impact on Abbott’s image will be nothing compared to the impact on key Coalition election candidates.

Marriage equality is an important issue, not only for gay voters and their families, but for young Australians who support it overwhelmingly and increasingly passionately.

In fact, according to Galaxy polling conducted last year, 77 per cent of Liberal voters and 90 per cent of young voters support a Coalition conscience vote, with a net 1.3 million voters saying they will be more likely to vote for the Coalition if it allows such a vote. Where this impacts most is in inner-urban electorates.

Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer, recently came out in support for marriage equality. But the advantage this should give her in her socially-progressive Melbourne electorate will be blunted by the fact she can’t vote for her convictions.

For openly gay and pro-equality Liberal candidate Kevin Eckendahl, the situation is worse.

He has a real chance to grab the seat of Melbourne Ports from Labor’s Michael Danby. Despite record levels of support for marriage equality in Melbourne Ports Michael Danby inexplicably abstained from voting for the reform last year.

For supporters of marriage equality in Melbourne Ports the choice of a major party should be clear — the Liberals. Instead, Abbott’s stand against a conscience vote means the choice is between a candidate who won’t vote for equality and one who can’t.

This pattern is repeated in cities across the country. Regardless of whether they intend to vote for marriage equality or not, Liberals like Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Terese Gambaro and Christopher Pyne would benefit electorally from being able to vote for it.

The electoral advantage of a Coalition conscience vote will only grow more pronounced as countries like Britain and New Zealand move towards marriage equality in the next couple of months.

Pro-equality Liberals I’ve spoken to in the last few days put a very rosy spin on Abbott’s new conscience vote rationale.

They interpret it to mean he has given the party room complete autonomy to decide if and when to grant a conscience vote regardless of his views or party policy. I’m not so sure voters will see it this way.

If inner-urban Liberals want to win votes from marriage equality supporters, the only way forward is a Coalition conscience vote.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.