Some thoughts on same-sex marriage and conscience votes

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Senator Mark Arbib surprised many pundits recently by announcing that he believed Labor MPs should be given a conscience vote on gay marriage. This came after Labor Senator Doug Cameron called for Labor to back gay marriage, calling opposition to gay marriage “absolutely crazy for a progressive party”.

Senator Arbib comes from the NSW Right faction of Labor, while Cameron comes from the NSW Left faction of Labor. Arbib is calling for a conscience vote; Cameron is calling for a change in policy, but still a binding caucus vote.

Chris Anderson (@chrisabruns – a progressive Labor Left comrade who is well worth following) recently wrote about this issue (link to Facebook Note). It echoes some of my own thoughts on this issue, and is spot on:

Much has been made of comments this weekend by Senator Arbib that Labor MPs should have a conscience vote on gay marriage.  Superficially this seems to be a major advance and could hasten law reform in this area.

But it won’t.

Arbib’s comments are clever positioning by a right wing warrior in the lead up to next years national conference.

A conscience vote would allow conservative forces to join up with the non Labor parties and block law reform.

Arbib knows the traditional Labor position would be to bind its MPs to support law reform.  But he wants to maintain the current position in law while pretending to make a symbolic shift to satisfy younger constituencies.  Its the kind of spin that NSW Labor has become despised about.

It means that the argument at next years national conference will not be gay marriage – yes or no…  It will be a debate between a conscience vote and a caucus vote.

Only by a binding vote of caucus that law reform for gay marriage can be acheived.  That is why the principal of politicians being bound to a caucus is so important.

Chris (and Doug Cameron) is absolutely correct that Labor needs to change its policy on same-sex marriage, and that a conscience vote should not be allowed on the issue.

I have on occassion been asked by various people on Twitter to justify Labor’s policy on same-sex marriage. I respond by pointing out the many concrete improvements Labor has achieved at a Federal level in the last 3 years to remove discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Labor has a long and proud history of achievements when it comes to creating equal treatment for the GLBTI community. This is in large part due to the tireless efforts of the many Labor activists in and supportive of Rainbow Labor. Activists who are deeply connected to the GLBTI community and who have long advocated reform.

Labor in Government has introduced reforms that have removed discrimination from 84 Commonwealth laws to ensure equal treatment for same-sex couples in the areas of tax, social security, health, aged care, superannuation, immigration, child support and family law.

Just some of these many concrete achievements include:

  • Medicare and the PBS safety net: Same-sex couples and their dependent children can now access Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme safety nets as a family.
  • Superannuation: Labor’s reforms removed discrimination in Commonwealth Super schemes, so that same-sex partners can access benefits of deceased partners and their children. Labor has also makes it easier for regulated super funds to recognise same-sex relationships
  • Immigration: Same-sex couples and their children are now considered “members of the family” for visa purposes, and Australian citizens, permanent residents and some New Zealand citizens can apply for the same partner visa as opposite-sex partners.
  • Aged care and social security: Young people can receive recognition of independence for Youth Allowance if they are in a same-sex relationship for over 12 months, lesbian relationships are now recognised as a qualifying relationship for Widow Allowance, and the family home is now exempt from the assets test when one partner enters a nursing care home and the other partner continues to reside there.
  • Family law and child support: Same-sex couples who have children using artificial conception procedures are now recognised as parents under Commonwealth law, and same-sex couples can apply for child-support on separation.
  • Tax off-sets: Same-sex couples can now access tax concessions previously denied to them, such as eligibility for the dependent spouse tax offset, the next medical expense tax offset or the transfer of unused Senior Australians tax offset.

Labor in Government has also committed to significant funding for suicide prevention and mental health, including $22.4 million targeted at groups and communities that have a high risk of suicide, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersex people.

These reforms and many others, have provided tangible, real improvements to the rights of GLBTI people in Australia.

In Victoria, the Brumby Government has established a relationship recognition scheme, which is recognised by a wide range of Commonwealth laws. The recent ALP Victorian Branch Conference passed a motion in support of same-sex marriage.

In a (tweeted) discussion with someone regarding same-sex marriage, I noted that with most or all of the substantial elements of discimination removed from same-sex couples, marriage remained effectively a symbolic gesture.

Looking at Labor’s real, concrete achievements in removing discrimination against same-sex couples – and more on the way from Victorian Labor – I can understand why Labor GLBTI activists get frustrated at the criticism of Labor on this issue. Would you prefer actual removal of discrimination, or just symbolic removal of discrimination? Labor has chosen – at a Federal level at the moment – the former.

To get action on the symbolic level however, we need – as Doug Cameron states – a debate on the issue of same-sex marriage. Not on whether it’s a conscience vote or not. A debate on the substantive issue. Then when the progresssive, pro-samex-sex marriage elements within Labor win, the entire Party will be bound to support it Federally.

It’s also why binding caucus votes are a tool for progressive reform.

7 responses to “Some thoughts on same-sex marriage and conscience votes”

  1. Jeremy Avatar

    They could've removed ACTUAL discrimination against gay people in one fell swoop by removing the discriminatory parts of the Marriae Act. They didn't take that obvious step, and the only possible reason is that they are saying that gay relationships ARE second-class. Hence the continuing outrage.

    Labor gets no credit for what was in effect an entrenchment of the discriminatory system in law.

    1. Alexander White Avatar

      Jeremy – I like how you stick to your talking points, no matter what. In what way would amending the Marriage Act to remove the "man and woman" bit have also amended other laws governing superannuation, adoption, access to child support or immigration?

      I am sure you are a reasonable enough person to reconsider your ill-thought through statement that "the only possible reason" for not amending the Marriage Act is that Labor is saying that "gay relationships are second-class". That is just high-school grade hyperbole.

  2. Jeremy Avatar

    "In what way would amending the Marriage Act to remove the "man and woman" bit have also amended other laws governing superannuation, adoption, access to child support or immigration?"

    Because those acts refer to married and de facto couples. All the government would have to do is remove the parts of the act that specify that either of those have to be between a man and a woman.

    "I am sure you are a reasonable enough person to reconsider your ill-thought through statement that "the only possible reason" for not amending the Marriage Act is that Labor is saying that "gay relationships are second-class". That is just high-school grade hyperbole."

    Give an alternative explanation.

    1. Alexander White Avatar

      That's a pity.

      If I were to "do a Jeremy Sear", I would suggest that the Greens voted against allowing a referrendum on nuclear in Victoria because (depending on how petty I was feeling) either they are in the pocket of the nuclear industry, or because they think Victorians are second class citizens who deserve to live next to dangerous nuclear power stations.

      1. Jeremy Avatar

        (a) what's that got to do with Labor's cop-out on gay marriage?

        (b) the nuclear referendum one is utter bullshit, and either you're thoroughly ignorant or you're just being totally disingenuous. Labor wanted to get rid of the pressure against nuclear by offering a system where if the government wanted to build a nuclear power plant and the public objected, the MINISTER might deign to call a referendum. The minister! How ridiculous. The Greens wanted a number of members of parliament to be able to call such a referendum, and obviously the ALP didn't.

        ie, once again, the Greens offered a real, meaningful option, and Labor offered a pathetic copout designed to sound good but in reality offering little to nothing.

        Same with the ETS.

      2. Alexander White Avatar

        (b) I understand the nuclear referendum deal to be automatic. The Greens Party option was for Parliament to call the referendum – based on the idea that Parliament should make the decision. I can't see how a Parliament controlled by the Liberals (or a party intent on building a nuke power plant) wouldn't have the numbers to decide not to call a referendum. So how is that a meaningful option?

        (a) This example doesn't have anything to do with same-sex marriage. I was using it to juxtapose your risible partisan rhetoric and mindless defence of everything Greens political party related.

  3. Jeremy Avatar

    The same could be said about you in reverse, so where does that get us?

    And no, under the ALP plan, the referendum wasn't to be automatic, it was to be called by the Minister. ie, if the Libs were in power, they wouldn't have to call a referendum. The Greens wanted it to be able to be called by a smaller number of MPs.

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