After declaring earlier this year that she supported the ‘traditional definition of marriage’, and saw no reason to change it, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that she would allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. This is a remarkable turn-around, given the strength of Gillard’s previous declarations on the subject.
But hey – a conscience vote! Not only is the question going to come up in Parliament, but MPs and Senators will be free to speak their minds. That’s brilliant, right? Those who advocate for marriage equality should be dancing in the streets, surely.
A conscience vote on same-sex marriage will almost certainly fail in the House.
Despite polls as recent as this morning showing nearly 70% support for same-sex marriage, enough MPs oppose it to ensure any bill’s defeat, even with a so-called ‘free vote. The Coalition overwhelmingly opposes the issue, while Labor is split.
That’s not to say that governments should be ruled by opinion polls. ‘Weather-vaning’ not only brings no votes, but also contributes to a picture of a party or politician as entirely inconsistent (and therefore untrustworthy). There’s also the question of conviction – if a party makes a decision to support or oppose a particular issue, it then needs to demonstrate unity.
So what is the point of a conscience vote, then?
It helps to take a look at what issues have attracted such votes in the past. The majority deal with so-called ‘social issues’ – sexual behaviour, medical procedures such as abortion, medical experimentation such as cloning, euthanasia and capital punishment. In 1996, for example a conscience vote allowed the Federal Government to strike down a Northern Territory law permitting euthanasia.
The argument for a conscience vote in these instances usually centres on the idea that these are areas of life that are likely to cause division within any given political party. Moreover, they are so important that an MP may feel compelled to vote against their party’s policy, thus demonstrating disunity. ‘Crossing the floor’ is a serious decision. It can result in a member’s expulsion from their party, seriously damaging their chances of re-election.
Arguably, however, the real reason behind assigning a conscience vote on these issues has little to do with their importance, and much to do with the weight of religious lobbying. Groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby wield a great deal of influence in the political arena. By allowing a conscience vote, a party leader can assume a posture of appeasement by publicly declaring a position consistent with theirs, while apparently granting others the ‘right’ to disagree. Former Prime Minister John Howard took that a step further in 2006, castigating those members of his party who conscience votes disagreed with his own, religiously-motivated position.
This is certainly the position taken in a paper produced for the Australian Council of Social Services in 2009.
At first glance, this appears reasonable. Some issues, apparently, should be a matter for the individual conscience, not the party line. But hold on a moment. Let’s take abortion. It’s been a matter for conscience votes in the past (most notably, perhaps, the RU486 bill of 2006). Today, however, Labor does not allow a conscience vote on matters of reproductive freedom. It has a firm, stated policy supporting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy (albeit with certain caveats). The Liberal-National Coalition also has a firm policy, opposing that stance.
So what changed? Did everyone in both parties suddenly undergo the blinding realisation that their side was ‘right’, thus removing the need for a free vote?
Or perhaps some new facts came to light that took the issue out of the realm of belief and opinion altogether?
Nothing of the kind.
A generous explanation might say it was a decision made by cabinet and caucus that reproductive freedom was an issue that demanded a strong, united stance in support of a position for which the majority felt a strong conviction.
An uncharitable explanation might say that it was simply politically expedient, given each party’s analysis of public opinion.
Either way, it shows that a conscience vote is little more than a sop to party members who agitate for policy change, and a nod and a wink to religious pressure groups. For all the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘too important to dictate a position’, the reality is that these are simply hot-potato issues. Party leaders don’t like that; vehement division in public opinion is a nightmare when you’re trying to attract votes from all areas of society.
Nonetheless, they’ve done it. Gillard sought the moral high ground by proclaiming that the carbon price was ‘the right thing to do’, and did not allow any form of conscience vote on that issue. There’s the abovementioned abortion policy. What’s so different about same-sex marriage?
The short answer is: nothing.
At its base, Gillard’s announcement of a conscience vote on this issue is an insult. It’s a safe bet for the Prime Minister, who’s already announced that she’d vote against it; she knows any such vote will fail. And once it does, she can claim a demonstrated mandate for refusing to revisit the issue on a policy basis. Much like the referendum over a Republic, the details wouldn’t matter. Gillard could hide behind the numbers.
The argument for a conscience vote rests on the premise that some things are too important to be left to party policy.
I’d argue that there are some things that are too important to be allowed to be hijacked by political expediency. As Rainbow Labor said today, ‘Matters of equality should not be the subject of a conscience vote’ (my italics). At its heart, same-sex marriage is just that – a matter of equality.