In August, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young wrote an opinion piece in The Age arguing that "the fight for marriage equality should be above party politics, which is a vital reason to give members of parliament a conscience vote on the matter."
Although the Greensand increasing numbers of Labor figures support the demand for marriage equality, there have been increasing calls from these quarters for the ALP to allow MPs to vote according to their consciences on this issue.
Advocates of the conscience vote have argued alternately that it is a compromise that suits both sides, whichit is the best we can hope for, or that it is a step in the right direction.
But it is not any of these things.
Marriage equality is an issue – fundamentally – of civil rights. This has been firmly established by the campaign over the last few years. Fundamental to the concept of rights is that they are unconditional. They should be upheld no matter what, regardless of whether or not certain individuals approve.
A free vote would give the Labor Party a cowardly back-door excuse to avoid taking a principled stand on a common-sense issue of civil and human rights. It represents a concession to the bigots in the party determined to maintain discrimination.
Those supporting the marriage equality campaign need to demand the ALP officially change its party platform to support equal marriage rights. Just as the apology to the stolen generations was a matter of binding policy for the ALP, so too should this issue of equality and civil rights. Addressing racism was not considered a matter of conscience, nor should removing homophobia from the law.
It is not just that a conscience vote is a betrayal of anti-homophobic principles.It is most worryingly a proposal that would likely see reform go down to defeat. Given the composition of parliament, almost all the Labor MPs and a large proportion of the Coalition would have to vote for equal rights. But Tony Abbott and other senior Liberal figures have been nothing but utterly clear on their hostility to holding a conscience vote on this issue.
Within the Labor party, the situation is not much better. Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, and other senior figures have publicly expressed their opposition to equal rightsand their allies in the right wing of the party will likely vote accordingly. Furthermore, Adam Bandt passed a motion last year that MPs should have to consult with their electorates on marriage equality.
Out of 150 MPs, only 30 bothered to report back. Of those 30, only 5 reported that their constituents supported equality. This is despite continual polling that shows that support for marriage equality sits at around 60%. The refusal of most MPs to report and the fact that the others could push the outrageous lie that most Australians support the government's policy demonstrates a highly dismissive attitude amongst most MPs, Labor and Liberal, towards this issue.
All this highlights the need for the ALP to insist on equal rights in the party's platform, not a moral gesture designed to placate the party's supporters while upholding discrimination.
If a conscience vote goes down to defeat, as it likely would, this would make the campaign significantly more difficult, although we would continue the campaign in earnest. But it would embolden bigots everywhere, as homophobic prejudice would be further legitimated by the government and legal system. It could be a long wait before another vote can be taken, and they will use the fact that a vote has already taken place to refuse to reconsider the issue.
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