What's wrong with a conscience vote?


Professor Dennis Altman

E-mail: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

This is the slightly longer version of the piece that ran in The Age on 5 December, 2011

The Labor Conference vote on gay marriage is largely seen as a defeat for Julia Gillard, although she achieved her key demand for a conscience vote when the issue comes before Parliament. But irrespective of her own views on the issue, which seem to puzzle almost everyone, she still has an opportunity to turn the issue to her advantage.   

The most interesting aspect of the Labor debate on same-sex marriage was the way in which the issue became central to Labor’s search for a contemporary identity. Those of us old enough to remember the battles in the 1970s and 1980s for decriminalisation might wonder cynically why it took so long for the party to incorporate sexuality into concern for human rights.

Such cynicism overlooks two points: the success of the gay movement and the changing nature of a larger understanding of human rights. The campaign for marriage equality, largely run by younger women and men, not all of them gay, is one of the most successful examples of effective lobbying in Australian politics over the past few decades.

Their efforts worked because they have been able to tap into changing social attitudes and growing acceptance of homosexuality. Some homosexuals certainly want to get married, and others, myself included, are deeply sceptical of the desire to emulate a women’s magazine version of marital bliss.

But the right to marriage has become a symbol of acceptance of gay equality, and the push for marriage succeeded by framing it as commitment to basic human rights. While some of the arguments were exaggerated the underlying question was whether to fully accept the equal validity of same-sex lives and relationships.

Accepting same-sex marriage has become the respectable way of supporting the right for adults to live their sexual and emotional lives as they wish. It is a triumph over religious doctrines, and a further mark of a secular society. Marriage is a deeply conservative way of promoting acceptance, and same-sex marriage has become possible in an era when marriage itself is declining as an institution. Thus the analogies with earlier bans on interracial marriage elide the reality that those laws were aimed at any form of interracial sex, and even more so at miscegenation.

Same sex marriage activists are unhappy that Labor has allowed a conscience vote on the issue. Rather than deploring the fact that MPs will be free to vote as they choose we might applaud the fact that individual MPs will not be able to hide behind the party in revealing their views. We know Gillard will vote against, but how about Rudd?

Surely we need more, not fewer, votes in which MPs are forced to take responsibility for their positions. I wish the ALP Conference had extended the same latitude over asylum seeker policy, which is also a question of fundamental moral principles not easily limited to party allegiance.

Indeed in a period where party membership is crumbling, the greatest weakness of Labor lies not in its party organisation but in the fact that it requires total obeisance of its Parliamentarians to the dictates of its leadership. In theory caucus makes major decisions, and members are bound to support the majority. When Labor is in government it is rare for caucus to be able to overturn decisions of the government.

Prime Minister Gillard says she wants active debate and disagreement within the party. If she were prepared to apply this to the Parliamentary party, and to propose that MPs have greater freedom to express their own views except on matters vital to the government’s survival [eg. votes of confidence and budgetary matters] she would be taking a far more radical step towards changing Labor than playing around with how Conference delegates are chosen.   

The traditional demand for total loyalty to the party line is increasingly unsustainable as Australia becomes more diverse and political debates occur around a widening range of issues. Parliament would be a far more interesting body, and more attractive to potential members, if there were some relaxation of the iron grip of party discipline that forces many of its best members to vote against their beliefs and the wishes of their constituents. Gillard can now point to the refusal of her opponents to allow a free vote on same-sex refrain, despite Liberal claims to believe in individual conscience.

Were Gillard to acknowledge that Parliamentarians are elected both as party delegates and representatives of their electorates, and that the right to vote according to their own judgement is essential in issues where there is deep and honest disagreement within the party, she would be attacking one of the shibboleths of the Australian Labor Party. She might also be able to stake out a position as a genuinely bold and visionary reformer.

Dennis Altman’s 1972 book, Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation will be republished next year.