Features Australia

Tanya Pliber-split

A binding vote on gay marriage looms as the next big Labor party split

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

Isn’t Tanya Plibersek having a nice time of it? Roy Morgan’s polling has her as the preferred Labor leader. The Monthly paraded her a couple of months ago as a PM in waiting and the heir to St. Julia.

And now it seems she’s setting the agenda of her party’s National Conference in July. And what a funfest that’s going to be: Palestine, the party presidency, national security. If you’re suffering Rudd-Gillard withdrawals, this orgy of Labor chaos should fill you with delight. And how interesting that on every front, Plibersek is set against her leader Bill Shorten.

But it’s on gay marriage that Plibersek’s been making the biggest racket. She wants the conscience vote instated for MPs in 2011 to be replaced with a binding vote to support reform. You’re a conservative Catholic? Well, tough luck mate. You’re sitting in a marginal with a large Muslim population? Oh they’ll understand – we’re doing the Palestine thing after all.

You don’t have to be anti-gay – gosh, you can actually be a proud LGBT badge-wearer – to see Plibersek’s push is a quick route to disaster. This thought bubble will hurt the cause of gay marriage and further rip at the ‘big tent’ that holds the ALP together. And whether she intended to or not, it’s an attack on the religious freedoms of her fellow Labor MPs.

Now to be fair, the binding vote against gay marriage that Gillard clung to was just as wrong. You wouldn’t want to be a gay MP or an MP with gay kids (or stacks of gay constituents) and be forced to vote against the people you love or strive to serve. That would be humiliating and it’s probably a worry for Liberals in the same boat.

But Plibersek’s argument is that conscience votes are only for life and death matters. Of course conscience votes have been regularly held for important social and moral issues such as divorce laws under Whitlam or Bob Hawke’s Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. These were big social changes that the political leaders in question knew required a broader sense of consensus, not just a coercive use of the parliamentary whip.

Bill Shorten – yes, he is still the leader – was at his best in the midst of the mess created by his deputy when he said to reporters later in the week, ‘The best way to achieve it… is not to force people to agree with it, but to convince them.’

Conscience votes are a marvellous encouragement of extra scrutiny and considered reflection. MPs are forced to go back to their electorates, to study the issue themselves, to actually think for themselves – which is why the standard of debate in these sorts of matters is so much higher.

Now, in theory, all votes should be conscience votes but on huge social issues that challenge the very cornerstones of society, like marriage, perhaps a bit more effort is needed to create consensus, eh Tanya? And what about this so-called big tent the great parties of government are supposed to represent? This is what’s supposed to set the big political beasts that ensure stability and initiate reform apart from minor party ratbags. Labor and the Liberals can represent all walks of life – neoliberal bankers and protectionist farmers, Catholic tradies and feminist academics – and unite these diverse groups under one banner.

Well, tearing that big tent apart isn’t going to help the party of Curtin and Chifley, Hawke and Keating in the long run – a party which, as much as the linear descendants of Menzies, needs to distinguish itself from feel-good Greens who couldn’t run a raffle never mind a government. Shorten has done pretty well holding this ever-fraying coalition together but this binding vote threatens to tear it apart. A conscience vote takes the poison out of the air and allows the factions to focus on the bigger issues. Let the gays vote yes, let the religious vote no, everyone’s happy.

It seems Plibersek – whose eye on the leadership is now pretty much unblinking – is alarmingly uninterested in leading a big tent party. After the New South Wales state election that produced two new Green state MPs in her immediate vicinity, she may feel the need to schmooze the latte set who dominate her electorate.

Graham Richardson (a man who knows a thing or two about winning elections) has said both in the Australian and on Sky News that seats like Newtown and Balmain are lost forever and the ALP shouldn’t waste their time. Plibersek may be right to worry for her own seat but if she’s ever to lead the party she needs to secure a bit more than Balmain. This bid for discipline on the gay vote reeks of short-term tactics over long-term policy.

But one huge problem still stands in her way. Marriage is an intensely personal issue dripping in religion in this country. Yes, any law would allow religious organisations to opt out of marrying same-sex couples. But don’t pretend this will cut the mustard for people of deep faith. For them, marriage will always be between a man and a woman and their God.

European countries like France have always separated civil and religious marriage, unlike us, but still, gay marriage had dissenters out on the streets. Something so steeped in faith and so close to people’s hearts cannot be wiped away by Tanya Plibersek and her national conference. An enforced vote is an affront to religious freedom plain and simple.

A Labor member who crosses the floor during a binding vote will be expelled from the party. And cross the floor they will. Bill Shorten will be left in a hell of a position. Plibersek may think she’s being clever but she’s created a distraction for her party that highlights how divided the ALP actually is.

You’d almost be tempted to say Plibersek would make a rather good Greens leader. She at least has the lack of common sense down pat. Not only is she demanding her religious colleagues turn their backs on their churches, she’s let her LGBT comrades down by making consensus much more difficult. And she’s damaged any hope she had of being a unifying figure in her party. When that inevitable ballot comes round for the leadership of the Australian Labor Party, Tanya Plibersek may wish the words ‘binding vote’ had never left her mouth.

Richard Ferguson is a freelance journalist and critic.

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