Even in a party notorious for disunity, the ructions inside the Australian Labor Party about marriage equality seem passing strange.
In 2015, it is difficult to believe that the right of Australians of the same sex to marry would arouse any controversy at all. Same-sex marriage now has broad acceptance in everyday life. For younger Australians in particular, a belief in the right of gays and lesbians to marry if they choose is widespread.
And, to give Labor its due, the party’s national platform does state that the party “will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples irrespective of sex.” This has been Labor’s formal policy since 2011.
The only problem? Labor also gives its parliamentarians a conscience vote on the issue, meaning they are not bound by that resolution. With the Coalition united against same-sex marriage, votes to amend the law failed in the last term of parliament.
Now Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, is pushing to make the resolution on same-sex marriage binding. This would force Labor parliamentarians to either vote for a marriage amendment, or cross the floor.
“Conscience votes in the Labor party are reserved for issues of life or death; I don’t think this is an issue in that category,” Plibersek said on the ABC’s Q&A program recently. Penny Wong concurs. The long-standing position of Labor's leader in the Senate is that “marriage equality should not be a matter of conscience, it should be Labor policy.”
Not everyone in the ALP agrees. The move has triggered a savage backlash from the right wing of the party.
The powerful Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association remains a significant force in the party. That union’s boss, Joe de Bruyn, is a well-known social conservative who is adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage.
In recent days, de Bruyn has made his displeasure very clear, attacking Plibersek publicly for disloyalty to her leader Bill Shorten. “What you see here is just politicians positioning for their own advantage,” he said on Monday, claiming that Plibersek was “simply playing to her constituency” in inner-city Sydney.
Victorian Labor front-bencher David Feeney has also poured fuel on the fire, telling Sky News today that while he supports marriage equality, “I don’t think the challenge is for Labor to engage in coercing people to support this legislation.”
Feeney thinks instead that “the challenge is for supporters of marriage equality, and I’m one of those, to actually engage in the debate and persuade the unpersuaded.”
There doesn’t seem to be much persuasion going on, however, with battle lines on the issue drawn. At least two Labor MPs have said they would cross the floor on a marriage equality vote: western Sydney MP Chris Hayes and West Australian senator Joe Bullock.
Conscience votes are rare in Australian party politics: the iron grip of party discipline ensures MPs vote as one on most legislation before the Parliament.
Labor’s left was profoundly concerned about all three of the draconian anti-terror laws passed in recent months. But with no conscience vote extended on the issue, members could either vote for a giant government spying program or cross the floor. The laws passed with bipartisan support.
Nor was a conscience vote extended when Labor voted for the current version of marriage law, the Marriage Amendment Act, in 2004. As Dennis Atkins points out this week, the vote came during Mark Latham’s leadership and the party was trying not be “wedged” on the issue by John Howard.
The Marriage Amendment Act is the infuriating law that makes marriage celebrants intone that a marriage is “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”
It’s the sentence that has soured thousands of special days across the country: a giant fuck-you to every same-sex attracted person at the wedding. There’s even a special clause in the law that says “certain unions are not marriages”. You guessed it: the union of a man and another man and a woman and another woman “must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.”
This is not a popular law. Australian society still harbours many reservoirs of prejudice and homophobia, but on marriage equality it seems that voters are comfortably more progressive than their elected representatives.
Essential has been polling on the issue for several years now. A majority of voters support the right of same-sex partners to marry, and have done since 2010.
In February, for instance, Essential found that those in favour of same-sex marriage outnumbered those opposed by two-to-one: 59 per cent in favour to 28 per cent opposed. Amongst Labor voters, the figures were 69-21. Amongst Greens voters, whose preferences Labor will need if it wants to win government, the figures were an amazing 90-7.
Even Coalition voters favour it, by a margin of 48-40.
Therefore, even on purely political calculations it would seem that the sooner Labor moves to a platform of wholehearted and immediate support for marriage equality, the better.
For a progressive party that claims to hold the core values of “opportunity, responsibility, and fairness,” same-sex marriage should be a no-brainer. What could be fairer than giving everyone the same opportunity to marry?
If that means forcing ALP politicians to vote for marriage equality, so be it. Labor has many policies that individual members disagree with. If dissidents feel strongly enough, they can cross the floor or leave the party altogether.
In fact, forcing Labor’s dinosaurs to publicly state their reasons for opposing marriage equality would do everyone a favour. It would expose the mean-spirited discrimination and homophobia to which some Labor politicians still cling. If the consciences of these politicians are leading them to vote against same-sex marriage, then we should know their views, the better to vote against them when we next get the chance.
The Marriage Amendment Act is one of the most profoundly illiberal laws in the entire statute book: a heavy-handed and offensive slogan planted right in the middle of what should be a cherished moment of a citizen’s life.
Labor voted for this law. It’s time the party made amends.
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