Text of a speech I gave at a Rainbow Labor event on 4 Nov 2011
Recently I was asked at a public forum if holding more conscience votes in the Parliament would strengthen democratic decision-making in Australia.
My view is no. In our Westminster system, we elect parties, not individuals. Our parliamentary system is based on a group of people, collectively, backing a set of policies that they have agreed upon.
Unlike the country of my birth, America, Australia does not usually see its government decisions and legislation held hostage to the single-issue views of individual members (the current minority government with its four independents is a notable exception.) Collective decision-making more often forces people to act in the best interest of all.
All that being said, should we have a conscience vote on gay marriage? Is there a credible argument to support it being a party-line position? Yes.
But the reality is that it can’t be an issue that is decided by the party rooms, and won’t be. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t succeed.
Tonight I want to reflect on these very issues. The policy imperatives to support same sex marriage. The policy grounds on why political parties could and should support same sex marriage. And yet the reasons why it will likely be a conscience vote, and why there is still room for hope that, even with a conscience vote, the Marriage Act could be changed.
First, the policy imperatives and the reasons why political parties could and should support amending the Marriage Act to incorporate same sex marriage.
I am going to say upfront that I acknowledge and support the human rights argument for same sex marriage. Denying the right to marry based on sexual orientation is a form of discrimination. Rights and freedoms afforded to some are denied to others only on the basis of sexual orientation. It is correct that we recognise this as a human rights issue.
And all of the major political parties in Australia state opposition to discrimination and support for human rights. And in a perfect world, this alone would be enough to see party platforms amended.
This isn’t a perfect world. I think we understand that. The rights and freedoms for the poor, for women, for indigenous people, for people of colour have all been won because they have been fought for, because people have challenged the status quo and argued for change. So too, as we all know, it has been the case winning rights and freedoms for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. So too it remains with marriage.
In addition to the human rights issue, there are also sound policy reasons to change the way marriage is defined in Australia: policy reasons that have their roots in the platforms of our major political parties; policy reasons that could and should allow this change to be accommodated in our political party platforms.
In considering whether to amend the Marriage Act, all political parties should ask themselves two questions. The first question is: do we support families?
Of course, they do. The major political parties in Australia explicitly express support for families in their platforms.
The National Constitution of the ALP asserts that our party stands for social justice and equality for individuals, the family and all social units. Note that family is singled out and privileged – the Labor party upholds the centrality of the family as a basic building block of our society.
The Liberal Party platform says it believes in the family as the primary institution for fostering the values on which a cohesive society is built.
And the Nationals platform says the party recognises the social and economic benefits of maintaining a strong family unit.
If I may be slightly mischevious, I note that the Nationals have inadvertently included in their platform the boldest and most explicit statement yet supporting a gender-neutral definition of what defines a family. I quote: “The Nationals believe that a family unit comprising two parents..... children and grandparents, provides the best chance for a prosperous, stable and happy family relationship.”
Oops. They forgot to mention whether those two parents should be a mother and a father!
I reckon a fair number of same sex families in this room, and definitely in this country, could meet the Nationals definition.
In short, the first question is answered. All political parties support families as the basic building block of society.
The second question political parties should ask themselves is ‘do we support marriage as the best basis by which families should form?’
Interestingly, neither the Liberals, Nationals nor the ALP make explicit statements privileging marriage in the same way they privilege families.
Why interestingly? Because there is a stack of social science research both in Australia and abroad that repeatedly shows the benefits of marriage on the health and welfare of families: Married people live longer, are healthier, make more money, and generally report less stress and more happiness. Married people also enjoy the easy legal and social recognition that comes from being defined by an established institution.
Forgive me, but these are the kind of people governments like – people who are readily understood and interpreted by a range of government policies and regulations (believe me, it cuts down on red tape), people who contribute more to the tax system, who draw less upon health and other services, and who overall are givers rather than takers upon the public purse.
If a political party privileges the family, it is hardly a leap for a political party to say that it privileges marriage as the preferred basis by which families should form.
I feel I should introduce a caveat here, and be clear that I am not arguing that families cannot exist if there is no marriage, or implying that single parent families are not families.
What I am arguing is that if we are going to start from scratch, and have two parent families forming – as the Nationals so helpfully suggest – then there are very good social and economic policy reasons for arguing that marriage is the preferred mechanism by which those families form.
Another way political parties might ask themselves the question is to consider if they are willing to set up and support a ‘competing basis’ to marriage, like civil unions? Would the political party be happy, on policy grounds, to accept an increasing number of heterosexual couples using these forms of unions, rather than marriage?
Conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan, a gay Christian Englishman living in the USA, makes this argument more eloquently than I do. In short, he asserts that if you support marriage, then you support it.
Sullivan argues that it is not in the interest of governments to construct a range of new legal forms to compete with marriage. Whether they are relationship registers or civil unions or the like, these new legal constructs are not marriage, and do not carry with them the benefits of marriage.
But once these new legal forms are introduced to ‘accomodate’ same sex couples, they also become available to heterosexual couples. The inadequacy of civil unions for same sex couples also becomes a less beneficial family arrangement for heterosexual couples. Supporters of marriage should realise, Sullivan says, that the best way for governments to undercut marriage as an institution is to credit and introduce unions that compete with marriage. The best way to defend marriage, Sullivan says, is to privilege it and provide it for all.
So, it isn’t hard to mount an argument for a policy basis for redefining marriage. Not only do all parties say they support human rights and oppose discrimination, but they also say they support and privilege families.
Our major political parties should and would want families to have the best possible basis on which to form. All the research tells us that marriage is provides that. Therefore, ergo, we make marriage available to all families, regardless of the gender of the two people whose union is creating the family.
Of course, we all know it isn’t that simple. If it was, we wouldn’t be here: this amendment would have been made ages ago.
Whilst you can use the preferences for families, found in the platforms of our major political parties, to argue for amending the Marriage Act, you can also find in those platforms a very real barrier: that marriage is defined as between a man and a woman.
Of course, this was as a result of the Howard Government’s change to the Marriage Act in 2004 to define legal marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman.
It would be amusing if it weren’t so serious an issue, but the current Liberal Party platform seems to have forgotten to restate this position.
I’m prepared to be proven wrong, but I could not find any definition of, or even mention of, marriage in the Liberal Party platform or constitution.
I acknowledge that the amendment moved by the Howard Government was a classic ‘dog whistle’ manoeuvre, one of many Howard was deft at executing, and also a perfect ‘wedge’ issue for Labor – and Howard was no slouch at that either.
Of course, we know that support for the Howard definition of marriage is explicitly stated in the ALP and the National Party Platforms.
But we also must acknowledge that the definition of marriage as currently stated in the Act comes from cultural understandings, shaped by people’s experiences, religious views and moral convictions.
We simply cannot ignore this, or pretend it doesn’t matter. Of course it does. It is the case that some people hold a view about marriage, and hold it as strongly as we hold ours, based deeply held convictions or religious beliefs. This issue, what it is to be married, and who can marry, is not just a policy issue. It goes right to the core of what it is to be human, what it is to be a person in a relationship, and how we define who we are as people and how we live in relationship to one another.
I may not agree with people who hold convictions and beliefs that two people of the same sex cannot be married, but I can understand it. And this is the real challenge of living in a multi-cultural, multi-religious, open and diverse society.
I would like to stand here and argue that the ALP party platform should be changed to define marriage as incorporating same sex marriage, and it should be a binding decision on all Labor members of Parliament.
I struggle against the logic of the arguments for same sex marriage – the compelling logic, the compelling human rights position, the compelling policy reasons – to assert that we as a political party cannot bind all of our members to a position that some of them, in their consciences, cannot support with a vote on the floor of the parliament.
But nonetheless I do assert just that – if we are to change the ALP position on this issue, it must be to a conscience vote.
We have conscience votes in the ALP for a reason – because we recognise that there are some issues that – in addition to their compelling logic or policy arguments – also cut to people’s deeply held convictions and beliefs.
And our party believes that on those issues – life and death, or the questions of morals and ethics – that the inviolability of conscience takes precedence. We don’t, as a Party, ask people to violate their conscience and their convictions on these questions.
This isn’t to argue that ALP Members of Parliament don’t exercise their consciences in other debates. It’s just that questions of how to deal with graffiti or how to distribute education funding or how to regulate the building industry rarely throw up deep moral and religious questions. The stark reality is that this issue – who can marry – does.
Brute force will not bring about change, or even if it did, it would likely be short-term change. Forcing our Labor party colleagues, with whom we agree with the majority of the time (we wouldn’t be in the same party if we didn’t) to back a position that violates their consciences is unjust.
It is as unjust as the current situation, where those of us who do not support the current definition of marriage as only between a man and a woman are bound by a platform that proclaims just that.
That our consciences are violated by the current party platform is unjust.
Righting that injustice by violating the conscience of others in our party is also unjust, and ineffective.
I know that many fear that an amendment would fail if voted in the current parliament as a conscience vote. Perhaps they are right. But I don’t know that we should be so certain.
I wonder sometimes if we Australians give ourselves too little credit for our capacity for reasoned, considered and thoughtful debate and reflection. Let me suggest a few considerations that run counter to the conventional wisdom on a conscience vote.
In the NSW Parliament we have passed legislation approving same sex adoption, and equalised the age of consent, on conscience votes. Both times they passed with a mixture of government and opposition MPs on both sides of the house. Both times I witnessed MPs wrestling with their consciences, considering their electorates, seeking out opposing points of view, consulting religious leaders, consulting experts, talking amongst themselves, and yes, even praying.
One of my very first speeches in the Parliament, made the day after my inaugural, was in the debate on the equalising the age of consent.
It was a very short speech. But I spoke about my religious faith and the gospel of love and of my understanding of Jesus as a man who preached love and acceptance.
Just after that, a Labor colleague who represented a regional area, a fellow Catholic, said to me “I didn’t know what I was going to do on this bill. I don’t think my electorate will like it if I vote for it. But I listened to your speech and I heard you describe the gospel I believe in too. So I am going to vote for it. Anyone who doesn’t like it can get stuffed.”
Sometimes social change happens that way – one conscience at a time. We might be able to easily predict how a vote on a mining tax or a carbon tax will go in a vote, but I don’t know that we can easily predict what will happen with each individual MP as they consider their conscience and their responsibilities and their beliefs.
And we don’t know what words in a debate, a letter, a constituent meeting or an article might open their mind to a new dimension or consideration. We don’t know what person they might meet or experience they might have that changes or directs their conscientious decision in such a vote. To that end, I commend the work of groups like Australian Marriage Equality, who are tackling this issue one MP at a time, and assisting people to meet with their local MP and tell their stories.
Often times the media hype of a conscience vote outweighs the actual importance of the issue to the broad electorate. Despite the fact that Australians have never shown a strong propensity to vote against their economic interests in order to support a social issues agenda, the media still predicts electoral doom for the MP whose view is perceived to be ‘out of sync’ with their electorate.
MPs who have been fearing a backlash or outcry find out that their electorate, largely, is either uninterested (because the issue at hand doesn’t affect them), or more interested in the bread and butter issues of cost of living, education, health, transport and the like.
There is also a strange dynamic that enters into a conscience vote. MPs fearing the wrath of their electorate sometimes realise that a conscience vote is a very messy thing. I mean that in a good way. Labor MPs from a socially conservative electorate suddenly discover that the willingness of some National and Liberal MPs to vote for a “progressive” conscience issue blurs the lines and gives them cover to do the same. For the record, my friend who voted in support of equalising the age of consent was re-elected. It was never an issue in his electorate.
Finally, can I make an obvious but overlooked point: no one has ever really asked our Federal MPs to cast a real vote on this issue. The vote in the Senate last year was undertaken under the current Labor party platform. It was not a conscience vote, and many Senators simply did not turn up.
Presumably some Senators chose not to violate their conscience by voting the party line, and took the easier route of skipping the vote altogether. I suspect a similar result would occur if the platform was changed to support same sex marriage. MPs opposed to same sex marriage might also skip a vote, robbing the chance to ‘use the numbers’ that a binding position would impose.
As a party, and indeed as a nation, we haven’t really afforded the MPs the chance to truly speak their minds, and wrestle with their conscience, and debate the issue. If we are going to achieve a change, we will need to afford them all that opportunity.
Real change, lasting change, change that has deep support and broad acceptance, is not easy to achieve. Winning the numbers, or the policy arguments, is not enough. We have to win the minds, and also the consciences of our fellow citizenry.
Time and time again in conscience votes in NSW, and indeed on other great matters of social change across the globe, we have seen the capacity for humans to expand their views, incorporate new information, and imagine a society that is different and better and more just than what we know today.
I have a great conviction – as both a Christian and a politician – that changing the Marriage Act to recognise same sex marriage is the right thing to do. I also have a great optimism that the Australian people and their elected representatives, when finally asked to consult their consciences, are more likely than not to agree.