The Australian Labor Party’s 46th National Conference starts today – and rarely has a meeting of politicians attracted such attention from so many areas of Australian society.
It’s got a full agenda – discussions on the sale of uranium to India, fundamental changes in how the leader is elected and possibly even the institution of a US-style primary system to decide pre-selection in individual electorates. The big issue, however, is same-sex marriage. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has already signalled she intends to propose that the issue be declared one of conscience – that is, to allow members to vote according to their own beliefs rather than along party lines. Rainbow Labor, led by Andrew Barr and Senator Penny Wong, in conjunction with the Left faction, intend to push for the adoption of same-sex marriage as part of the national policy platform.
Yesterday, Barr said that he thought he might have the numbers to win that argument. With Left and Independent factions determined to push for a firm platform, only twelve votes are needed from the Right. Last night, however, the Right announced they intend to vote in a bloc for Gillard’s solution. It comes down to numbers at this point.
For an issue that many commentators (such as former Labor Minister Graeme Richardson and Labor historian Troy Bramston) dismiss as ‘not first-order’, not ‘centrepiece’, same-sex marriage has become the major focus of this conference. Members of the Right accused the Left this morning of ‘pressuring’ people, union leader Joe de Bruyn voiced his vehement opposition to same-sex marriage under any circumstances, and – reportedly – some Labor MPs announced they would cross the floor if the party did change its policy platform, and risk expulsion. Interestingly, there’s been far less media time given to the Left – only Andrew Barr has had any substantial air time.
Paul Howes, head of the Australian Workers Union, managed to be sanctimonious, hypocritical and just plain wrong this morning when he was asked about the impending discussion. ‘Labor has a long and proud history of allowing conscience votes on these issues,’ he said, and went on to castigate those members of Labor’s Left who are pushing for a party policy on same-sex marriage, for daring to attempt to force their beliefs on others.
Honestly, where do I start with that one?
Howes, in high dudgeon, practically vibrated with righteous indignation as he tried to claim the moral high ground here. And oh, doesn’t it make for a good sound bite when someone passionately defends freedom of choice? Surely no reasonable person could argue with the idea that politicians must be able to hold to their own beliefs on important issues?
The problem here is that Howes ignores a basic fact of politics – that politicians are elected not to vote their own consciences, but to represent their electorates. And given that overwhelmingly, almost every poll shows a massive groundswell of support for same-sex marriage (at least 60% in favour), Howes is effectively advocating that Labor selectively ignore those voters. Coming from a man who regularly points to popular support to shore up his positions on various issues, this is inconsistency at best, hypocrisy at worst.
And let’s face it, most of us hold strong beliefs on a variety of issues. My religion, for example, was strongly opposed to the idea of invading Iraq. My religion absolutely rejects the idea that children should be exposed to religious indoctrination while attending a government school. Neither of these issues has ever been exposed to a conscience vote, nor are they likely to be. The so-called ‘moral issues’, such as abortion and euthanasia, are the ones that receive that dubious privilege.
What makes these ‘moral issues’? Nothing more than the fact that some religions declare them to be so. It’s cherry-picking of the worst kind – you won’t find many people arguing that there is a need for conscience votes on whether to allow women access to high office or to prohibit the sale of contraception, despite these issues being apparently as important to those religions.
Yet it’s perhaps even more disgusting that Howes chose to take this line, given that his appeals obscure the fact that, in effect, he’s advocating that Labor continue to deny that same freedom to others – just because some people don’t like the idea of same-sex couples being married. In this, he is no different from those Christian fundamentalists who declare that marriage equality would somehow destroy civilisation as we know it.
These are the same people who scream bloody blue murder when they think Australia is being ‘converted by stealth’ to Islam if they eat halal meat without realising it. These are the same people who raise their hands in horror and lament the death of ‘Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage’ if their kids come home from school saying, ‘Happy Holidays’, instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. And these are the people who argue passionately that no one, no one, has the right to prevent them from living according to their beliefs.
And yet … by writing and upholding in law the idea that some love and commitment is less deserving of recognition – by, in effect, saying that only those forms of union that conform to their beliefs are worthy and legitimate – they force their beliefs on everyone.
But deep down, they know that. They know exactly what they’re doing. If they’re honest, they’ll say so proudly and point to some idea of divine ‘truth’ to back themselves up. If not, you can see it in their eyes. They’ll squirm and dance and fall back on mealy-mouthed appeals to ‘tradition’ – which, of course, means only those traditions they feel like preserving. And Howes, by clasping to his bosom this completely hypocritical ‘Champion of Freedom’ mantle, has put himself firmly in the camp of people like the Coalition’s Cory Bernardi and Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby.
And let’s not forget that Howes is just plain wrong, too.
Labor has not historically allowed conscience votes on ‘these issues’. In 2004, when the Marriage Act was changed to explicitly exclude same-sex couples, no conscience vote was either asked for or allowed. Labor simply voted its party line, which was to enshrine mean-spirited discrimination in law. If, as Howes and others have claimed, the issue of marriage is so important as to require that MPs be allowed to wrestle with their consciences, why weren’t they allowed to do so then?
Gillard, during the 2010 election campaign, proudly declared that Labor’s policy platform specifically included reproductive freedom for women. Back then, that issue was so important that it required party unity. To now claim, as she and supporters from the Labor Right have done, the exact opposite where same-sex marriage is concerned, frankly beggars belief. And raises more than the whiff of suspicion that those who hold this position are attempting to curry favour with one minority group by discriminating against another – and yes, fundamentalist Christians are a minority group, protestations by Wallace and his cronies notwithstanding.
No one’s life will be threatened if same-sex couples are legally married. No country will go to war with us over this. There’s no reputable conflicting science, as there is with matters of human cloning (which, incidentally, the Prime Minister supported during a conscience vote in 2007). By trying to place same-sex marriage on a par with issues of abortion and euthanasia, Gillard and the Labor Right are trying to sweep under the rug the real issue of equality. We no longer socially ostracise or legally penalise heterosexual couples who choose to co-habit rather than marry. We no longer prohibit interracial marriage. We don’t even require people to show ’cause’ for divorce. Those are the issues which should be discussed in conjunction with this question.
Marriage is a secular institution. Sorry, religious folks, but there it is. For a long time now the State has been solemnising marriages without benefit of church or clergy. As such, the State should serve all people equally.
Let’s suppose someone wanted to bring in a law designed to exclude a particular religious group from the right to marry. The screams of outrage would be heard from orbit. After all, it’s an utterly nonsensical notion, right? Yes. It is – as nonsensical as the idea of excluding an entire section of the population from marriage for being same-sex attracted.
The ALP National Conference will tackle this issue tomorrow. At this point, it looks like Gillard will get the result she wants. Which will, no doubt, be a great relief for her. She won’t have to worry about fending off interview questions about whether she has the support of the party. She can say she’s done the ‘moral thing’, and ‘listened’ to the party.
What she won’t be able to say is what Queensland Deputy Premier Andrew Fraser said when State Labor passed same-sex civil unions legislation two nights ago: ‘Today was a momentous occasion for civil rights’.
This issue now hangs on whether twelve people out of around 200 decide that those fundamental human rights are more important than a handful of religious beliefs and cultural prejudices. That equality is more important than doctrine, and that allowing the expression of love and commitment is more important than allowing bigotry to remain enshrined in Australian law.
Gillard argued in her keynote speech this morning that ‘fairness begins in the workplace’. That may be so – but why should fairness end at the altar?.
Gillard also said that ‘only Labor can govern for all’. I wonder how those who she denies the same rights she has the choice to embrace or reject would feel about that statement. When did ‘govern for all’ become ‘exclude those whose issues might upset Labor’s polling numbers’?
Perhaps those members should go home tonight and wrestle with their consciences on those issues. There’s an opportunity here for Labor to show itself to be a champion of human rights, regardless of personal belief – it shouldn’t be missed.
In response to requests, I’ll be live-blogging the same-sex marriage debate tomorrow on Twitter and posting a summary here afterwards. Feel free to follow me on Twitter, or to follow the hashtags #alpnc and/or #marriageequality.