September 21st, 2012
Australia’s House of Representatives (98 – 42) and Senate (41 – 26) have voted against allowing same-sex couples to marry, despite popular support for the change. Part of the vote disparity comes as a consequence of the political structure.
Here’s a brief explanation:
In the United States, there are (almost always) only two parties. Whichever party wins the most seats controls the legislative body. But other than voting on administrative leadership and structural control, a legislator is always free to vote their own way.
Party affiliations, rhetoric, and platforms are important indicators of likely votes, but ultimately the electorate selects individuals based on their qualifications and character. Candidates may agree with many, or even most of the positions of others in their party, but as there really are only two viable choices for affiliation at this time, there is little expectation that there will be total agreement with whichever party they are in.
But in nations with multiple parties, especially when one party does not dominate, quite often no single party has a majority and parties negotiate for power. But in order for negotiations to be meaningful and for coalitions to remain intact, the parties need to be able to make deals, as parties. The leader has to be able to promise the votes from his block on matters of importance to another party in order to ensure that his party can get the promise of another party’s votes on their priorities. Elections in multi-party nations also are to a larger extent votes for a party rather than a person and legislators are expected to vote “the party line”.
To a lesser extent, block voting is practiced in the States as well. Parties will caucus and negotiate and there are party whips whose job it is to keep votes more or less in line with party principles and positions. Stray too far and your funding and support in your next election will dry up. But in the US, “bipartisan support” is considered a positive for a bill and were a party leader to announce that all members must vote in a particular way on a bill, there would be public outcry.
Of course, in multi-party nations there are issues that are not party priorities or that do not break along party lines. In those instances, a “conscience vote” is allowed, at the discretion of the party leader. If there is no risk of a coalition dissolving or if there is no presumption that the voters assumed the party had a position, then a legislator may be allowed to vote as they wish without repercussions from the party.
Australia is a bit complicated. It is in some ways nearly a two-party nation, but it functions as a multi-party state. The two power houses are Labor, a centre-left party, and The Coalition, a collection of centre-right parties that – while distinct parties in their own right – broker power as a unit and can be held to a party line by the Coalition leader. Currently these two political entities are nearly evenly balanced in both houses of parliament, giving the much smaller Greens party the power to determine who leads the Senate and a handful of independents who make that determination for the House of Representatives. Labor holds control of both houses and Julia Gillard, Labor leader in the House, is Prime Minister.
(The closest US comparison is the 2006 elections which resulted in 49 Republican and 49 Democratic Senators. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who identifies as “democratic socialist” (akin to European centre-left party ideology), is not officially affiliated with a party. And Joe Lieberman, who is registered as a Democrat and was the party’s 2000 Vice Presidential nominee, lost the Democratic Party nomination but was elected to continued representing his state by the 25-member Connecticut for Lieberman Party. Both caucused with and gave Senate control to the Democratic Party for the 110th Congress.)
My apologies to Australian readers if I bungled that too badly and feel free to correct any glaring errors. And now back to the marriage vote.
Where things get tricky is when a vote is a party line vote for some parties and a conscience vote for others. This was the case with Australia’s vote on marriage.
The Coalition legislators were held to a party line vote, but Prime Minister Gillard, being personally opposed to marriage equality, allowed a conscience vote in the House. This split the Labor vote and, when Labor opponents were added to united Coalition voting block, this gave the bill a lopsided loss. A similar scenario played out in the Senate.
Although there are three more marriage bills in the House and one more in the Senate, it is assumed that their fate is the same. However, as a significant portion of this year’s Labor opposition is based in election strategy (which is not the same as representing the electorate’s majority view) there is some hope that marriage will pass in 2013. I have no idea if that is political reality or wishful declaration.
And, finally, as politics is a wacky thing, here’s a little tidbit. The Coalition leader in the
Senate House has a lesbian sister and expressed himself to be conflicted between promises made to his constituents and his personal feelings (he went with the promises). The Senate Labor leader, however, came up with a candidate for all-time-stupidest-political-comment-ever:
Senate President John Hogg told the chamber he had a deep-seated belief that marriage was between a man and woman.
“To decry my views is to seek to discriminate against me,” he said.
Meanwhile, the marriage battle has moved to the states.
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