Wednesday, 12 August 2015 

I thought we were supposed to be talking about climate change today.

Julie Bishop not getting the memo

Well thank goodness that’s been cleared up.

As things stand now Australian voters have the clear choice on same sex marriage between one party that will have a binding vote that may be a conscience vote after the next election, and another party that has a conscience vote that will be binding the election after that. Of course the side that has a binding vote is being attacked for doing so from the other side by those who are, at the same time, arguing for a binding vote on their own side. Meanwhile the side that has the binding vote keeps reminding everyone that the party doesn’t really have binding votes on anything anyway and some are likely to cross the floor if it came to a vote, which they hope it won’t.

Finally, the side that’s not that keen on same sex marriage will likely be proposing a plebiscite, which given the polls, they will probably lose, while the other side that does want same sex marriage (sort of) is less keen on a plebiscite they will probably win.

Is anyone following this? Good.

After yesterday’s fiasco it is safe to say that the political class now has a position almost diametrically opposite to the Australian public it is supposed to represent. While polls indicate the public are overwhelmingly supporting same sex marriage but generally don’t see it as a big issue, we have a political class that doesn’t support it, but after yesterday’s six hour marathon by the party that thinks it the least, we now know considers it very important indeed.

Before unraveling the mess it’s worthwhile making a few basic democratic points against arguments that are unfortunately being most pushed by those lobbying for same sex marriage who, in reflecting what is after all the popular position, are going a rather undemocratic way about it.

The first thing that should be dismissed is the idea that MPs should have a conscience vote on this, or any other issue. It’s rubbish. If it is the case that some issues are so deeply held that they are a matter of conscience (and it is arguable that this is one) and that it is desperately important they are respected, what about the consciences of the voters? Surely they are just as deeply held? So why then should they be subjugated to MPs’ consciences on the issue?

On that basis, at least with the Liberals, who have a party policy on it, any voter who felt strongly on the issue would know who to vote for (or not). Whatever is thought on their stance, having it as a clear policy seems a more honest and democratic way to approach the voter than having to rely on the consistency of the conscience of a Labor MP. Especially, as anyone who has followed Labor’s record on this will know, for such deeply held personal convictions, Labor has gone through a remarkable “journey” in a very short space of time.

It was only back in 2010 that it wasn’t even a matter of conscience at all with Labor reiterating its support for Howard’s 2004 amendment to the Marriage Act as party policy. It was nevertheless reaffirmed by the personal view of the leader at the time, who many have cynically thought owed her deeply held personal conviction to her dependency on conservative unions, but we now realise to be just part of her radical critique of the entire institution of marriage.

Since 2010, Labor has walked away from its support for Howard’s amendment and now left it down to politicians’ deeply held personal convictions, which they will continue to do until five years time, which appears to be the shelf life of such deeply held personal convictions.

Of course at one level, Labor’s hiding behind the superior consciences of its MPs is merely part of the grand tradition of shame-faced liberalism on both sides of politics that stems from the Menzies-Holt period when conscience votes were used to loosen restriction on people’s private lives, like abortion, that were very much party policy when they were applied.

However at another level Labor’s use of same sex marriage has also been used as an internal political football that stemmed from the disaster of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd experience, with Rudd’s own change in his deeply held personal conviction on the matter coinciding with a need to distance himself from the unions and the faction brokers that gave us 2010.

Since then the issue has been code for the modernisers to weaken the influence of the unions and especially used by the current deputy leader as a gentle undermining of the current lacklustre leader which many in Labor are suspecting is part of the same problem. The hash compromise of Conference, where Labor will not have it binding as policy until the Parliament after next while promising to introduce a bill to allow same sex marriage in the Parliament before, sums up the problem of the modernisers who after the failure of the Rudd experiment, have nowhere to go.

If Labor’s expedient deeply held personal convictions have a tinge of irony, they are over-shadowed by the farce on the other side of politics yesterday. Here we have a party that even in the middle of an unprecedented six hour party room doo-dah had some leading figures telling everyone what a marginal issue it was. Furthermore the meeting was called by a leader who has been making more a point than anyone that there were far more important considerations to spend time on.

Such as saving his leadership. Like Shorten, Abbott was seeing the same sex marriage issue in danger of being used as an internal weapon against a weak leader. When LNP MP Warren Enstch told Abbott yesterday morning that he would be bringing the Private Member’s Bill on same sex marriage forward to next week, it was understandable that Abbott had to act quickly to stop this becoming a tool to further undermine his leadership. This would have been especially urgent given the way the election of the Speaker at the start of the week had been used to do exactly that with Abbott’s candidate being over-ridden for the preferred choice of the Prime-Minister-in-waiting Scott Morrison.

In the end it was done so hastily that as one MP commented, “They were literally making it up as they went along.” The main push for same sex marriage reportedly came from Abbott’s own frontbench rather than the back bench that led the challenge in February, and suggests that the next time they do, there will not be an empty chair.

That’s why, like Labor’s solution at conference, the shambolic solution put forward by Abbott made no sense to anyone interested in the matter, but perfect sense to Abbott’s need to survive – by pleasing the right by assuring voters the government was “absolutely on the side” of those against gay marriage and then heading off the threat from Morrison, Turnbull and Bishop by setting out how later it won’t.

At least one good thing has come from the farce, a way to shift the debate away from it, namely through the proposal of a plebiscite. Why not? Incredibly, most of those against the idea come from the pro-same sex marriage side more likely to win it. The opposition to the voters directly expressing their view through a plebiscite seems the flip-side of the tedious need to keep the debate confined to the superior consciences of the MPs.

One argument is that it will mean the out-pouring of damaging views, which can hardly be worse than comparisons to bestiality made in the refined environs of the Senate. Another argument has been that it is not necessary as it doesn’t require constitutional change. Well politics is about more than constitutional niceties just as Ireland’s referendum was more than just constitutional change.

And as for it not being necessary, well the current paralysis and farcical way both sides of politics have treated it would be an argument against that. It sums up a political climate that has become paralysed to the tedium of analysing MPs consciences and bemoaning the dire state of party politics, so having a debate on something conducted outside those confines would surely be a breath of fresh air. And what better issue than one that had so long been denied it?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 12 August 2015.

Filed under Society, State of the parties


25 responses to “Equality”

  1. David Jackmanson on 12th August 2015 7:04 am

    I agree that the idea of political parties with clear platforms presenting a choice to voters is more democratic than a mish-mash of independent consciences, but that seems to be a minority view at the moment. I suppose that isn’t surprising when neither party of government is doing anything like what people actually want, but it gets in the way of actual politics happening again.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 12th August 2015 7:41 am

    I think it indicates how much some people have given up on party platforms achieving something and are now hoping for some individual with the right conscience etc. etc. But as soon as you do that, well everyone’s consciences are just as valid as anyone else’s.

  3. Phillip O'Reilly on 12th August 2015 8:22 am

    It is really puzzling to see Labors relentless timidity, even when the the public supports them.
    Not much hope then if an issue arises that needs real leadership.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 12th August 2015 8:55 am

    Same as for climate change. Internal considerations over-ride.

  5. Riccardo on 12th August 2015 1:38 pm

    Is it just me, but I would have argued if you came to a particular political issue with a ‘conscience’ then you should resign from your political party, or alternatively, form one solely around that issue.

    Saying a person has a ‘conscience’ about a particular issue somehow implies everyone else doesn’t. The purpose of parties is to rally votes and apart from saying that you disagree with your party’s position, what else is there to say.

    It would be more honest to call these votes ‘free votes’ and for party leadership to be honest and say they can’t bind the vote because too many alternative views held, and this issue is not worth breaking the party over.

    Which is what is really at stake.

    Greens are happy to bind their members, because (as far as we have heard) none are disagreeing with the party platform on marriage equality.

    If the Lib/Labs are not willing to bind their members, then presumably the regard thrashing out a position as not worth as much as say, passing terrorism laws or a budget.

  6. Riccardo on 12th August 2015 1:54 pm

    To me, this is where we reach the end of the line with parties.

    Watch a few good costume dramas – like The Duchess about Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire – and see what political parties really were in the good old days.

    Actual parties – the other meaning of the word – big dinners in aristo’s houses, lots of frivolity, constant grouping and regrouping in the House of Commons around personalities.

    The ideological positions, such as they were, were very very broad, and definitely tribal as much as philosophical.

    To be in a party meant to be part of the grouping to support a political set of candidates for Ministry and even, as it evolved, for election.

    But none of the current nonsense of having ‘organisational wings’ and ‘membership’ and ‘expulsion’ etc.

    We need to realise that all this drama was created for our ‘benefit’ – otherwise making such a song and dance would just look plain stupid. Presumably within the political class they all know exactly where each of them stands.

  7. Sancho on 12th August 2015 2:17 pm

    The most common argument against a plebiscite, AFAIK, is that it’s uncivilised to take a vote on someone’s human rights.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 12th August 2015 5:32 pm

    Well, it was done on indigenous in 1967 and people have been dining out on it and feeling good about themselves ever since.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 12th August 2015 5:40 pm

    On Labor’s voting record since it’s conscience vote was introduced in 2011 this is a handy guide.

    Yes/No voting record on the issue has been:

    38/26 in the House of Reps and 16/11 and 14(?)/13 in the Senate.

    There have been assurances that there has been a remarkable transformation in the deeply held personal convictions of Labor MPs since.

    Also as an update, it is clearer that the move by Bishop/Morrison/Abbott(?) for a referendum is a politically clever move, now forcing those like Shorten and Turnbull who’ve been making such a thing of the issue to say it’s not worth the money and there’s more important issues anyway.

  10. Andy on 12th August 2015 9:13 pm

    So if a referendum was won at the next election would a PM Abbott (or PM Morrison) be forced to bind the Coalition to marriage equality? There would still be the same liberal-conservative split in the party.

    Re-elected PM Abbott would have political capital to force a change and give himself an out despite his deeply held convictions. Or maybe the re-elected Lib-Nat government could start with a new scandal.

    I would include additional referendums on climate change action and bank nationalisation. Why limit the people’s consciences.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 12th August 2015 9:21 pm

    I think it would be very difficult for the Libs to set up a referendum and then ignore it. I think a few would be happy to see the issue disappear, which it wouldn’t if they did that. Certainly I think leaving it just to the Libs to set the terms of the referendum would be silly, but just dismissing it out of hand, as the pro-SSM side seem to be doing doesn’t make sense either.

    Especially as polls suggest a referendum win. I would think it more likely than the only alternative: a Labor win by a big enough margin to offset those of the 40% who voted No last time who still haven’t changed their minds.

    This is being done for obvious internal reasons, just like Gillard did for climate change on the “Citizens Assembly”. So no, referendums on other issues don’t really apply.

  12. Michael on 12th August 2015 11:02 pm

    Frankly, I think you’re in danger of disappearing up your own fundament on this one.
    The idea that, as a gay man, my right to marry the one I love is so beyond the pale of the ordinary processes of representative democracy that it should be contingent on first asking the rest of the country whether they’re OK with it is deeply offensive. And it doesn’t take much to see that it’s just as dangerous as the point you (correctly) make in your second comment.
    As for “an out-pouring of damaging views”, why should my tax money go to help fund – in the interests of balance – a no case that’ll likely stoop to comparing me to dog-fuckers and kiddy-fiddlers? (I know it already helps pay for Cory Bernardi’s salary, but at least he has a day job.)
    Meanwhile, your comment that “politics is about more than constitutional niceties just as Ireland’s referendum was more than just constitutional change” misses the point entirely – surprisingly, given your knowledge of what our 1967 referendum was really about. In both cases, the “constitutional niceties” made the resort to a referendum *essential*: so as to overturn the Irish constitution’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and our constitution’s exclusion of indigenous peoples from the ambit of the race power.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 12th August 2015 11:32 pm

    Think we’re at cross purposes on this. I’m not saying it should be beyond the pale of ordinary processes, it shouldn’t. But it clearly is.

    Not only is nothing happening on the issue despite public support, both parties are all over the place with contradictory positions, and the best the pro-SSM side has to hope for within the current process, as I say, is that Labor wins the next election by enough margin to offset those Labor MPs that will be still voting No under their ridiculous “conscience vote”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the chances are good, especially if Abbott is dumped before it.

    So the referendum/plebiscite is an alternative option. I don’t see what’s wrong with it. I can’t get this “out-pouring of hate” argument since I can’t see why those likely to do so would be holding back now – and, of course, no way should public money be spent on either side. If they want to make the case, they should pay for it. I see no reason why the pro-SSM side would not win.

    This idea is clearly being floated by the Libs as a cynical manoeurvre as we saw from the master of cynicism, Morrison, on 730 tonight. But why not call their bluff? If Shorten was sincere on the issue he would be saying sure, bring it to a vote, here are the terms of it and would take it up and run with it. But of course he doesn’t want to do that because he’s using the issue as a way getting people to vote Labor, which is his main priority, and he wants that as the only option. I guess it depends what your priorities are whether you agree.

    But against the argument for the issue itself there is also the broader point I was trying to make. This is a clear example where the political class is incapable of reflecting the democratic wish (or priorities) of the electorate but it is hardly the only one. Taking the decision out of their hands, which some politicians on both sides would rather have done anyway, to be honest, seems not a bad idea in the current circumstances. Getting society to clearly make its view felt on this issue might have a positive effect elsewhere. Who knows. But should this current state of affairs go on?

  14. Michael on 13th August 2015 11:34 am

    I suspect that we are at cross-purposes.
    Thinking about it overnight, one reason it’s hard to be as sanguine as you are about the “out-pouring of damaging views” is that, as gay men, we live our lives feeling like we must ask permission to be who we are – and fear possible rejection. The idea of that taking place on a nation-wide scale is difficult to bear. As for public funding, if it’s a referendum then it’ll be all but mandatory.
    In any case, I think Laura Tingle got it right today when she wrote:
    “Does anybody seriously think a government would bring voters to the polls for a third time in three years to consider same sex marriage? Of course not. And the very fact the conservatives are thinking referendum rather than plebiscite says much about their plans to try to kill this issue once and for all.”
    What’s the point of calling the Coalition’s bluff when they’ll still find a way not to do what they say they are ‘strongly disposed’ to do? Speaking of which, they’ll be flat-out trying to get people to believe in their promises next time – let alone their ‘strong dispositions’.

  15. Michael on 13th August 2015 12:02 pm

    Of course, it now occurs to me that you too maybe LGBTI. Heteronormativity strikes again!

  16. Sancho on 13th August 2015 1:45 pm

    It’s all sort of redundant. Tony Abbott will not allow gays to get married under his prime ministership.

    He will always block it, and he will always be proud that he went down fighting. In his retirement interviews he will still be proud, and smugly confident that he’s not going to hell.

  17. Mercurial on 13th August 2015 2:52 pm

    A referendum and a plebiscite are two completely different things. Just listen to ScoMo last night morphing from pleb to ref in one smooth movement. Neither has the power to change laws – that must be done by parliament, whether or not a pleb/ref is run. The Government can ignore either if it wishes. And what’s the point of a referendum when there’s no change to the Constitution (I believe the 1967
    “plebiscite” over Indigenous was in fact a referendum.)

    Politicians should make up their minds based on their representation of their electorates. For better or worse (no pun intended) they represent those views in parliament.

    And I, like you, Michael, find asking permission to marry the one I love offensive.

  18. The Piping Shrike on 13th August 2015 4:02 pm

    I think as Peter Brent addresses elsewhere, the referendum/plebiscite difference is fairly moot. The WWI conscription referendums did not involve Constitutional changes.

    I think there is a bit too much of taking what Scott Morrison or anyone else in the government is saying at face value. Like Labor’s various positions this is much more about internal party manoeuverings than anything. So I think Morrison’s musings on the matter are more to appeal to the conservatives in the party than anything. I would see it quite possible that the referendum/plebiscite will never come about as things in the Liberals could change quite quickly. All it’s done is bring out the anti-democratic edge to the pro-SSM side, which is surprising given most people are fairly relaxed about it happening.

  19. F on 14th August 2015 12:56 am

    Ah, Shrike. I must disagree with you on some of the gist of your article. As it stands we have two choices: a major party that has SSM on its platform( however wishy washy) and a major party that most certainly does NOT have SSM on its platform.

    Now, I get it. You hate Shorten and all he represents. As do I….and yet, he is the only leader of a major willing to prosecute the case for SSM (however wishy washy)

    What’s wrong with taking it to an election? Don’t we the voters also decide those?

    After all, an election could be just around the corner….

  20. The Piping Shrike on 14th August 2015 5:15 am

    There’s nothing wrong with it at all. Why not both? If Labor wins, there will be a vote in the House and the pro-SSM lobby can pray for the refined consciences of Labor MPs. If, as appears more likely at the moment, the Coalition wins, there is supposed to be a plebiscite so everyone can decide.

    There is no reason it has to be mutually exclusive. The only ones who are pretending it is is Labor, because they want it to be a reason to vote for them as the only way for it to happen, and the pro-SSM side for reasons not that clear, but probably from a fear of the demos.

  21. F on 14th August 2015 4:15 pm

    After everything that has happened, you still think this government has it in it to win the next election? After all the political disasters?! The inability to prosecute ANY of their policies in a meaningful fashion? Even to dump Abbott in a clean fashion?

    Are you Peter Brent?


    If you think there are headwinds against this government now, just wait for what is coming over the next year or so. Australia is heading for a recession, if it isn’t already in one,and it will be much like the one we endured during the early 90s. Like that period it will be in conjunction with a collapse in the housing market. If Keating couldnt survive a similar cataclysm, what makes you think this lot will? Keating was a far more astute political operator than ANYONE in the current federal Liberal party.

    The ALP may be whole party full of political Greg Norman’s, but they won’t be seen to be making things worse in the coming cataclysm….unlike this current lot.

  22. Andrew Elder on 14th August 2015 7:30 pm

    If Labor win the next election, the compromise thrashed out on Tuesday becomes void. Look what a fragmented rabble the Libs were after Fraser; this is what I expected after Howard, but it seems more likely under this scenario.

    There are, what, 60 pro-SSM HoR votes now? Labor MPs who support SSM, coming into office with a PM who campaigned on exactly that policy, will find a few similarly-minded Liberals tired of being on the wrong side of history; add a few independents (McGowan?) and you’ll have your 76/150 soon enough.

    The ALP Conference, plus the silence of the SDA on an issue one would assume to be central to their members’ interests (penalty rates) suggests conservative Labor is not faring well. Maybe they are biding their time and slinking from the public glare as is their wont, but the Shoppies seem unlikely to increase their numbers of preselected candidates for (and thus representation in) the next Parliament. They may have a presence in ALP branches in the Adelaide seats Labor does not already hold, but otherwise it is hard to see where their SSM-blocking clout will come from.

  23. The Piping Shrike on 14th August 2015 8:11 pm

    Oh Conference showed their influence is waning. and if Labor got a reasonably comfortable majority it would likely pass (especially if the Libs changed their policy too). But the possibility of Labor breaking history and comfortably winning the next election? Well possible but certainly not a given, especially if Tones goes.

  24. Oldskool on 2nd September 2015 1:22 pm

    I know I said this elsewhere, but can soemone explain how a referendum is supposed to work- the Constitution (Clause 21) has one word to say- Marriage. A referendum would require that the clause say something along the lines of marriage: with respect to the parties therein, and not discriminate by gender etc… AND- you would still have to repeal the sections of the marriage act that they could do which would legalise recognition of same sex marriage anyway! Whenever this is discussed, why isn’t the absolute lunacy pointed out- a plebiscite sure, if you like, but it is still simply overturning something changed by parliament in 2004, I don’t understand…

  25. Riccardo on 6th September 2015 9:55 am

    Referendum always a red herring. Some on the far right think they are being clever as their best chance of sabotaging a change is via referendum. But if they lose and yes forces win, they will be stuck with a position they oppose intractably buried in the constitution.

    And even if the referendum fails, but a majority of the population voted in favour, a parliamentary leader could go and change the legislation, while pointing to this popular mandate.

    The wording of the constitution post referendum would be guaranteed to be more clunky and less elegant than if it was left alone. Those of us who support a minimalist constitution favour the slow, court driven change that having few words enables.

    Look at the race question, how many knots we have tied due to a few words about what was, originally, just the intention of stopping states from forcing Aboriginal populations across borders to skew their share of senate seats.

    I compare that with the elegance of Mabo:
    -can’t undo the sin of European invasion
    -can’t undo the history of racist,discriminatory policies
    -but can stop the continuing diminution of traditional land rights by common law methods, acknowledging that the crown never extinguished those rights.

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