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Australia’s marriage movement

Timothy Kincaid

November 15th, 2010

Marriage equality has again become a focal point in Australia and I am simply not adequately versed in Australian politics to state with certainty what is going on. But here is my take, and fortunately we have readers down under who can correct my inaccuracies.

Marriage equality has popular support in Australia with perhaps 60% or more favoring the idea. However, as with most nations, there are more liberal and more conservative areas and, as politicians are constantly seeking the path of power rather than principles or ideals, the rights of gay men and women are easily bartered away.

Currently, Julia Gillard is the Prime Minister and head of the Australian Labor Party. Labor is made up of two factions, Socialist Left which favors progressive social policies, and Labor Right which favors focusing on economic liberalism, a relative of libertarianism. (This is probably a very simplistic explanation; I hope it’s close enough). Although Gillard is from the Left side of the party, she has been sharply resistant to recognition of marriage equality.

With a government formed in a similar fashion as British Parliament, legislators often are required to vote as a block. A “conscience vote” is one in which a member of Parliament may make a personal decision which is not consistent with the party line. And as Gillard will not allow a conscience vote, the matter is more or less settled for now.

However, Labor’s position is not solid. In the August elections, Coalition (the center-right collection of parties) won an equal number of seats to the House of Representatives. Labor controls by means of the support of a Green Party member and three independents. To complicate matters more, although Gillard was part of the Left, she was advanced by the support of the Right in her party.

Recently the issue of marriage – which has for years been a hot potato – was given new life from an unexpected source: a member of Labor Right. (National Affairs)

Right-Wing Labor minister Mark Arbib has declared his party’s policy against gay marriage must change to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Mr Arbib is the first frontbencher to break his silence on the issue.

The NSW factional powerbroker told The Weekend Australian his view was that gay people should have the legal right to marry.

And he said all MPs should be given a conscience vote on the controversial issue.

Arbib is a rather powerful Senator, especially in Labor Right, and his change in position cannot be taken lightly. But it is also not a full endorsement as it would allow conservative Labor members to vote against marriage.

Labor Left does not favor a conscience vote, instead hoping for eventual control of the party and thus a block vote in favor of marriage. But Arbib’s statements have empowered other legislators to speak up.

Meanwhile, marriage has strong support in some of the states and the capitol area. So the states of South Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania either have or are considering proposals to legalize same-sex marriage. As marriage is a federally defined institution, this is a tricky legal strategy: because federal law addresses only heterosexual couples, the states want to claim the ability to make decisions about same-sex couples on their own. This also serves to pressure the feds to vote on the issue; if you want to maintain the power to define same-sex relationships, you have to take action.

And the stakes are very high. While federal parties have been able to avoid dealing with the issue by promises of a registry of some sort some day some time, a vote to quash gay couples and deny them rights would be seen as aggressively hostile and would likely shift power. While Labor can be wishy-washy, it dare not be “anti-gay” or it would votes to the Greens. And gay activists are willing to make it a campaign issue.

Got that so far?

Well, back at the federal level, the Greens have proposed an odd motion: to direct MPs to discuss the issue with their constituents. This puts Labor in a no-win position. While “I define marriage as a man and a woman” is not considered unreasonable, “I won’t even talk about it” is not.

So today Labor announced that it will support the Greens motion to discuss the matter with their constituents. (ABC)

The Government will back a Greens motion which calls for more debate about gay marriage, as tensions rise within Labor over its official position on the issue.

Labor agreed at its last national conference in 2009 not to support gay marriage, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard has ruled out a conscience vote on the issue.

But Labor will now support a Greens motion which calls for all MPs to speak to their constituents about gay marriage.

Undoubtedly, such discussions will result in much news coverage and an increase vocal support for equality. Additionally, a number of members of Labor intend to call for a change in position in the next national convention. Those on the left favor equality and those on the right fear losing power to the Greens.

So, although the Coalition has reaffirmed it’s opposition to marriage equality, it is at least reasonable to hope that Labor will change position and that marriage equality is not too far off in Australia.

Comments

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Aussie Steve
November 15th, 2010 | LINK

Great summary of the current events down under. There appears to be enough support from individual members of parliament but unless parties allow a conscience vote or change their policy it won’t happen.

Lorenzo from Oz
November 15th, 2010 | LINK

Excellent summary.

Marriage is a Commonwealth responsibility according to the Australian Constitution and Commonwealth power trumps State power in its areas of constitutional competence. The States control all other aspects of family law, however. So the proposed legal strategy has all sorts of fascinating constitutional wrinkles.

Lorenzo from Oz
November 15th, 2010 | LINK

Commonwealth = Federal (as in the Federal Government of the Commonwealth of Australia), just to clarify my previous comment.

Other Fred in the UK
November 16th, 2010 | LINK

If memory serves, same-sex marriage was turn into a partisan issue by John Howard, imitating the success of the U.S. Republicans in using it as a ‘wedge issue’. I suspect advocates in Australia would be wise to try to remove that partisan nature of the debate.

paul canning
November 16th, 2010 | LINK

The absolute best person to read on the situation is the leading Aussie activist Rodney Croome http://www.rodneycroome.id.au/weblog.php

He is very optimistic that a ‘tipping point’ has been reached but believes they’ll be one big godalmighty pushback from the religious right, especially the Catholic Church, which does have clout in Oz. He reports today that the Oz equivalent of MoveOn is running a campaign, which is an enormous help with yesterday’s development.

Labor definitely lost votes on this issue to the Greens at the last election, including their first lower house seat. It almost lost three others, all ‘metropolitan’ inner city seats. Arbib’s move is partly doing the right thing – his comments related to his children, nicely positioning this as a ‘family issue’ – but are also a political calculation aimed at winning back some of those lost votes.

Gillard’s position is simply that Labor conference has to decide. At the last one marriage was narrowly lost and it seems likely that at the next one it will win. I don’t think your characterisation of it as a left-right issue in Labor is correct. The Labor opposition is largely from Catholic MPs. There are also a number of opposition (conservative) MPs in support.

paul canning
November 16th, 2010 | LINK

Here’s that campaign from GetUp! which has had tens of thousands involved http://www.getup.org.au/campaign/1369&id=1460

Timothy Kincaid
November 16th, 2010 | LINK

Thanks for the feedback from our Aussie readers.

Mark F.
November 16th, 2010 | LINK

It’s interesting that P.M. Gillard is an open atheist, so she obviously doesn’t believe in the religion based anti-gay arguments. Either she is a bigot or a rank political opportunist.

Lorenzo from Oz
November 18th, 2010 | LINK

Mark F: the ALP is very strict about requiring MPs to support Party policy. Julia Gillard is PM because she is ALP Leader, so she is duty-bound to support the current platform. As the head of a minority Government, she has enough problems without publicly playing fast and loose with basic ALP rules.

Anonymous
November 9th, 2013 | LINK

I every time spent my half an hour to read this weblog’s content every day along with a cup of coffee.

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