The Politics    Monday, May 25, 2015

A matter of conscience

By Sean Kelly

It’s time for Labor to stop pussyfooting around, and back gay marriage 100%

In 2012, US president Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage. Immediately there arose a chorus of progressive voices in Australia saying that if America was doing it, we should too.

These arguments made me angry. First, because they were hypocritical: the people suddenly falling back on the US as moral paragon were those usually given to decrying the country’s gun laws and its devastating gap between rich and poor.

But it made me angry for another reason, a simpler one, which is this: the argument should be unnecessary. It should be enough simply to say that it is right.

That’s how I feel after Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum. I’m thrilled with the victory of the “Yes” vote. I’m also disappointed with Australia’s continuing failure to allow gay marriage. But I’m not disappointed in comparison with Ireland. I’m disappointed because it’s wrong.

Most days this column is focused on the Coalition – they’re the government, after all. And a lot could be written about the slow transmogrification of the Liberal party from a party of genuine liberalism to a party of large-C Conservatism, with the patchwork ideological compromises that entails, and why that means the best we can hope for from it is a conscience vote on same-sex marriage, rather than the commitment to consistent, equal rule of law you might expect.

But I’d like to focus on the Opposition today.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the past months and I can see no reason at all that Labor should not bind each of its MPs in a mandatory vote in favour of gay marriage. Current party policy, supported by Bill Shorten, is to allow all MPs a conscience vote instead.

I want to do this calmly and methodically, but let’s start with moral outrage and the simple argument in favour of allowing gay marriage. By continuing with a law giving rights to one section of the population and excluding another, our nation is telling the excluded they are lesser. Not just lesser, but so much lesser that their diminished status should be enshrined in the laws of our country.

That doesn’t sound like something the nation’s largest progressive party should be ambivalent about.

Labor is deservedly proud of its past achievements in tearing down many laws that treated gay couples as second-class citizens. Labor has long argued for its role as defender of the underdog and champion of the downtrodden. It should take this final step in the long journey towards full legal equality for gay people as a whole party, not as a motley group of individuals each acting according to their own personal beliefs. It should prove true to its own image of itself. Anything else will be seen, in future years, as a cowardly retreat from principle.

The party – not just Labor MPs, but the entire party – has a chance to tell every gay person in this country, every gay adolescent struggling with their identity, that they deserve no less than anybody else, and that the party stands with them. It should take it.

We then turn to the question of when a conscience vote should come into play. It is not true, as some opponents of a conscience vote claim, that it has always been reserved for matters of life and death. Matters of religious belief, not occasioning mortal questions, have brought conscience votes before – divorce, for example.

But the party should put those days of religious exceptionalism behind it. This is not to say religious beliefs do not deserve respect – they do. It is becoming harder, not easier, to practise religion, and I admire those who do. But in this day and age their beliefs deserve only the same level of respect as the beliefs held sincerely by atheists and agnostics. If the ALP permits a conscience vote on gay marriage – which does not directly involve life or death – then why not allow a conscience vote on asylum seeker policy, which arguably does? This argument is an anachronism, and should be given swift dismissal.

But even if religion were to be taken as a reason for individuals to exercise their own personal choices, then surely that should only matter when the laws would affect those individuals or their churches. In this case, no MP will be forced to marry another MP of the same sex. And no serious proponent of marriage equality suggests that churches should be forced to marry same-sex couples. A binding vote would not impose irreligious beliefs on religious MPs, whose churches and religious practice would remain unaffected. On the contrary: a conscience vote allows religious MPs the freedom to try to impose their own religious beliefs on the community. That is something no MP should attempt to do.

One Irish priest put this eloquently:

We have inherited a tradition which has associated religion and politics in a way that has excluded some of our fellow citizens … When we become legislators, though, as we do when we vote in referendums, we legislate for all our fellow citizens. We do not vote as members of this or that church or faith. Of course we cannot leave our religiously based moral convictions outside the polling station, but we do need to remember the difference between civil and religious law.

We also need to remember that it is possible to have deep and passionately held convictions without seeking to have those convictions imposed by the state on fellow citizens who do not share them and may have opposite convictions which are equally deep and passionately held.

Finally, then, we come to the political arguments for a conscience vote. There are two.

The first is that some Labor MPs would cross the floor if forced to vote in favour of gay marriage. It’s worth noting that none of them have spoken up yet, at least so far as I can tell. Policy on a matter of legal equality, with clear moral force behind it, should not be subject to the shadowy suggestion that some MPs won’t stand for it. Party leaders have stared down such threats before, on matters more ambiguous, and lived to tell the tale.

The second political argument is that the party would lose votes in marginal seats. I doubt it would have as much impact as some pretend. To sway votes it would have to not only annoy people, but annoy them enough to override concerns about cost of living, healthcare, and jobs. And that’s before you look at the numbers: the Liberals’ own polling firm, Crosby Textor, found 72% of Australians in favour of gay marriage. And that’s before either major party has argued consistently for it.

And still some people argue that supporting gay marriage would be all about winning back Greens voters to the ALP. On the contrary: if anything, it would be about winning the votes of most of Australia. 

Even if some votes went by the wayside, Labor frontbencher Tony Burke (who has indicated he will vote for gay marriage, but has not supported calls for a binding vote), representing an electorate largely opposed to gay marriage, makes a persuasive case that it is up to MPs to shift the discussion: “The time has now come for the conversation in communities like mine to move to the fact that this change will occur. We need to get to the next stage of the conversation to explain why those who do not want the change will be unaffected by it.”

Surely that conversation is better conducted by the party as a whole?

Finally, there is an argument that Labor, in abandoning a conscience vote, will allow the Liberals to avoid a conscience vote. This is rubbish. The Liberals will do whatever they want, with no reference to Labor. It is also becoming increasingly likely that they will adopt a conscience vote in any case. And when they do, and Labor’s major claim in one of the most significant equality debates in decades is merely that they did exactly what the Liberals did? How galling for a supposedly progressive party.

At present a binding vote is being treated as a threat by the ALP. It is, in fact, an opportunity. The party’s policy is already to hold a conscience vote, and has been since 2011. Changing that policy to unequivocally back same-sex marriage is Bill Shorten’s chance to show that the party has changed in those four years; that he recognises that the society it seeks to govern is changing, too; and that he, unlike Tony Abbott, is a man for the times. 

Right now, it seems that opportunity will soon be lost.


Liberal MPs pushing for a conscience vote on gay marriage want to see the debate in parliament before the end of the year.

A new counter-terror tsar has been appointed. Also in immigration, revoking the citizenship of alleged terrorists. Also in immigration, a ten-year-old autistic boy and his mother have been granted a permanent visa.

Oh, and also in immigration, the Immigration Department has banned its public servants from wearing thongs, onesies, and ugg boots.

There’s been a small reshuffle in the Greens, with party leader Richard Di Natale putting off anything more major amid suspicions a federal election may be looming.

A new analysis shows this year’s budget, like last year’s, hit the poor while leaving the rich alone (or better off).

The debate over too much union influence on the Labor party again.

Concerns over the revolving door between politics and the coal-seam gas industry. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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