Hollow victories or baby steps?

By | 2011/12/04

Yesterday, in an apparently historic move in Australia, the ALP voted at their national conference to amend their position on marriage such that it was no longer exclusively between a man and a woman. However, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, managed to carry the day with the proposition that any vote on changing the law would be a conscience vote rather than a binding vote.

You know when some arsehole shock jock says something particularly vitriolic, then the next day gives an apology like “I’m sorry if you were offended by my turn of phrase”?

I can’t help thinking that yesterday was like one of those bullshit apologies. You see, those apologies aren’t really apologies – the person doesn’t say “I’m sorry I caused offence”, they’re saying “I regret that you chose to be offended by what I said”. Likewise, yesterday’s decision by the ALP may turn out to be just as full of shit.

The ALP celebrated 120 years during the conference. I wonder how many other times in those 120 years they had a party position that was non-binding? It certainly hasn’t been with uranium, for instance. Some people in the ALP – typically from the left – actually understand that this isn’t a matter of special rights, but of equal rights. Anthony Albanese at the ALP conference yesterday was quoted as saying:

“By giving a group of people rights that they’ve been denied you don’t take away existing rights of another section in our community. The Australian people understand that.”

(“Labor votes in favour of gay marriage“, The Age, 2011-12-03).

The right wing of the ALP (whom personally I consider to be closet liberals, too scared to admit which party they really want to belong to – and yes, that includes our current labor PM) argued strongly that this is a bad move, and yet again revealed all the dumb and wrong arguments. Joe de Bruyn, an outspoken union official who perhaps needs to spend more time observing the old phrase “we have two ears and one mouth – use them in that ratio”, came out with some typical corkers yesterday:

“This issue is one we should decide with our heads, not on the basis of emotion”

(Ibid.)

True, that – we should decide it with our heads. And our heads should tell us that all people have a right to be treated equally. If Joe’s head doesn’t tell him that, Joe’s head perhaps should be checked.

Joe went on to give the old, factually incorrect argument:

“The definition of marriage as set out in the legislation is that it is the union of one man and one woman, voluntarily entered into for life. It has always been that way since the dawn of humanity.”

(Ibid.)

Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Anyone who does even the most cursory historical investigation of same-sex marriage over history would see that there was a long tradition for it for many centuries, and it’s only been in the last few centuries that bigotry and prejudice disguised as religious zeal took over the conversation.

Even for Australia, marriage defined as being between a man and a woman didn’t become part of legislation until John Howard seized it as a wedge political issue in 2004:

On August 13, 2004, in a debate punctuated by rage and tears, the Senate passed a Howard government amendment to the Marriage Act banning same-sex marriages.

(“A history of marriage in Australia“, The Drum, Rodney Croome, 1 July 2011).

So here we are, in 2011, 7 years on from Howard’s shameful and discriminatory dark victory, and where are we? What have we achieved?

That change to the marriage act didn’t get scrape through with the ALP opposing it, it got through with the ALP supporting it, which they willingly did, since they were actively pursuing the politics of sameness – the sad and democracy-shattering notion that by making themselves more like the Liberal party they’d have a better chance of winning votes from their traditional voters.

In a speech to a religious group shortly only months after those changes went into law, Kim Beazley, perennial failed leader of the ALP said that the ALP would look to identify and remove discriminatory laws however:

“Debates on issues like this are often marginal to the real pressures that families face every day in our society.”

(“ALP Woos Religious Right“, Sydney Star Observer, Ian Gould, 3/11/2005).

Normally, political parties get all excited about marginal things, but only when they’re electorates. Joe de Bruyn again could be relied on to speak of what the ALP delegates opposed to this change were also thinking of – grubby vote issues:

“The head of the powerful shop assistants union, Joe de Bruyn, declared the policy shift ‘tragic’ and warned it would cost Labor votes, particularly in ethnic communities. But he conceded the numbers were never there to hold back the tide.”

(“I do: Labor to Gay Marriage“, Misha Schubert & Stephanie Peating, The Age, 4 December 2011.)

These sad arguments about votes and tradition just don’t wash any more, yet, at the end of the day, they resulted in the shamefully wishy-washy approach of saying “we accept it can change, but we won’t force MPs to vote for it”.

Unless something drastic happens on the other side of the political fence – within the Liberal/National coalition, this effectively scuppers same-sex marriage for this term of government. While Tony Abbott had nothing to say yesterday (which quite frankly in and of itself is astounding), he has repeatedly said that as leader of the LNP he won’t allow a conscience vote on the matter. So given the current parliamentary numbers, pretty much every member of the ALP would need, on a conscience vote, to vote for the change, yet we know for a fact this won’t happen – there are many who won’t, and given the intense lobbying that they’ll get from fringe religious groups, others may indeed buckle, too.

While the LNP does allow members to cross the floor, even on non-conscience votes, the chances of enough LNP members deciding to show back-bone on this issue to pass the legislation seems hopeful at best. Frankly, I had more hope yesterday for Gillard giving in on the conscience vote amendment than I would on LNP members crossing the floor to support a same-sex marriage bill.

And there we have it – a victory that seems to all intents and purposes to be hollow indeed.

I will not celebrate yesterday’s “victory”. I applaud those in the ALP and those who rallied outside who stood up for the rights of consenting adults to enter into equally recognised relationships, but I decry those who deliberately and systematically scuppered the issue.