Conscience Craving

13 / 09 / 2012

By Sarah  Capper

In an ideal world where human rights are indivisible, where party policies aren’t manipulated by factional bosses, where there’s a clear separation between church and state, where the major parties aren’t petrified of challenging conservative, outdated, fear-mongers, Federal leaders Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott would be co-sponsoring a marriage equality bill, ushering the safe passage of same sex marriage rights.

One is an atheist in a de-facto relationship; the other a staunch Catholic who once trained as a Jesuit priest and who has a sister who is a lesbian. Both have declared their “personal” opposition of gay marriage, and both will be voting on the same side in rejecting bills before federal parliament. And boy are there some bills to be debated.

Labor Senators Trish Crossin, Gavin Marshall, Louise Pratt and Carol Brown are the latest to throw another gay marriage Bill before federal parliament. Theirs is expected to be debated in the Senate next week, which already has Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young’s Bill to consider, while the House of Representatives has the ALP’s Private Members Bill from Stephen Jones, plus a co-sponsored Bill from Independent Andrew Wilkie and Greens Member for Melbourne Adam Bandt. Four bills in total.

The Prime Minister has at least come to the half-way mark by allowing her MPs a conscience vote. This represents a significant turnaround following a decision at the Australian Labor Party’s National Conference late last year which reversed the Party’s opposition to same sex marriage.

But here’s the catch – unlike most other issues, in which the ALP votes as a block, the National Conference also moved a motion to allow MPs a conscience vote on the issue. Gillard moved the motion herself, presumably to save face by (1) placating conservative ALP members who would almost certainly have crossed the floor and defied the voting block directive, and (2) giving herself the opportunity to vote in accordance with her publicised opinions on the issue.

Labor statesman John Faulkner voted against the conscience provision, eloquently arguing (again, with a nod to an ideal world), that “a conscience vote on human rights is not conscionable.”

Viewing same sex marriage rights as an issue of equal rights, Senator Faulkner explained, “They are not privileges to be extended to one person and denied to another according to the whims of popular opinion or the whims of the government of the day. They are inherent in each and every one of us simply because we are human.”

Amen to that. But the conscience provision won out at Conference, despite the Party officially changing its policy.

Since 1902, members of the Labor Party are bound by a pledge formally tying them to the party line, to “do [their] utmost to carry out the principles embodied in the Federal Labor Platform and on all questions affecting that Platform to vote as a majority of the Parliamentary Party”.

For ALP Members, failure to toe the Party line can result in disciplinary action, which could mean losing future pre-selection, or even expulsion.

By contrast, members of the Liberal Party relish the opportunity to highlight that their Party has no such staunch voting requirements. Indeed, the “father” of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, in its creation in 1944 championed “the concept that an individual parliamentary member had the right to a conscience vote as central to party lore” (‘Free Votes in Australian and some Overseas Parliaments’, Current Issues Brief no.1 2002-03, Deirdre McKeown and Rob Lundie, Politics and Public Administration Group, 27 August 2002, Parliamentary Library).

Following Labor’s reversal in policy at Conference last year, Opposition leader Tony Abbott was quick to point out that “Every vote the Liberal Party takes in the Parliament is essentially a conscience vote, because we don’t expel people as the Labor Party does for exercising their judgement.”

But this statement is a contradiction. Abbott has denied his members a conscience vote on the issue, announcing the Party will collectively vote against any legislation to change the Marriage Act. Were any of his Members to vote differently from the Party line, they would in fact be crossing the floor, a move which is different and far more contentious than allowing members a conscience or “free” vote.

Exercising this privilege of voting against the Party line does not happen without repercussions. As former Senator Amanda Vanstone once remarked:

“There are rare occasions when the Liberal Party has a free vote. But I might remind you, Senator, that the Liberal Party is a party that, nonetheless, does not necessarily willingly always tolerate members who cannot in their own conscience abide by the team decision and cross the floor. I, myself, having done so in the past. It is not a very a pleasant experience, but it is one thing the Liberal Party tolerates that the people over here [the ALP] never will.” ((quoted in ‘Free Votes in Australian and some Overseas Parliaments’, as sourced above).

Following last year’s ALP Conference vote, openly gay Finance Minister Penny Wong said the onus was now on the Opposition leader to allow a conscience motion with his MPs.

“The real politics now in getting the reform through are in Tony Abbott’s court, because we in the Labor Party have made a very clear decision today about what our party stands for and what our members and senators will be able to do on the floor of the federal parliament,” Senator Wong said.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott was instead quick to declare his Party’s opposition to gay marriage. So quick, he announced the Coalition’s position on it as parliament recessed for summer, without actually running it past the party room, a place typically reserved for allowing all members a chance to thrash out party policy, away from the public gaze.

For some Liberals, his decision to vote “no” in this instance was premature (but not all surprising given Abbott seems to have the word “no” on repetitive loop – cartoonists like the Financial Review’s David Rowe now shaving the word “NO” on his hairy chest region in some clever caricatures).

Writing in Fairfax newspapers (‘Abbott’s stance on gay marriage looks like strong-arm tactics’, 30 January 2012), Former Howard Government Minister Amanda Vanstone was critical of Abbott’s decision, arguing the decision “could cost him in the long run”:

“One of the things that really aggravates members of Parliament is when a leader announces, through the media, a decision that has been made after Parliament has risen. As there is no party-room meeting over the break, the leader’s announcement and policy position gets all the airplay and permeates the public mind. MPs who disagree with the decision rightly see the timing as a tactic to weaken them.

“If members disagree, what do they do? There is no party meeting at which they can vent their anger. No chance for them to collectively express their view to the leader. In these circumstances the leader and shadow cabinet are seen as strong-arming the party room.”

Abbott’s other problem with jumping the gun on the announcement, Vanstone argued, is tied up with his perceived relationship with women and his Catholic views:

 “His conduct as health minister led many women to worry that, given the chance, he would use whatever power and influence he could to implement his more conservative views.

“He has told Australians that if elected he would not let his personal views dictate policy; nor would he take instructions from Rome. He said these things because he is conscious of the apprehension among women and liberals that he would take Australia to a more conservative position than we now have on issues such as abortion and gay rights. So, the last thing he needs is to act in any way that causes women and liberals to doubt his word. Announcing that he did not want a conscience vote when his party members had dispersed is difficult to explain away. It looks deliberate. Even tricky.”

Trickier still, now that the debate has hit parliament, with some MPs declaring their support for gay marriage.

Malcolm Turnbull, the Member for Wentworth (a border of which runs along Sydney’s Oxford Street) has declared his support for gay marriage:

“Were a free vote to be permitted, I would support legislation which recognised same-sex couples as being described as a marriage,” the former Opposition leader told the House of Representatives committee this week.

On arguments that gay marriage supposedly threatens the institution of marriage, Turnbull said it “drips with hypocrisy” and the “pools are the deepest at the feet of the sanctimonious”.

Other Liberal MPs have suggested they too would support extending marriage rights to same sex couples:

–          Member for Brisbane Teresa Gambaro (who narrowly holds the central Brisbane City seat) has previously said she would support the views held in her electorate, which she believes “would demand such equal rights are adhered to and I support the views in the community in relation to any proposed changes to the specific definition of marriage”,

–          West Australian Liberal MP Mal Washer has said he personally supports gay marriage and a conscience vote on the issue, and thinks gay marriage inevitable, but has said “if it came to a vote, the consensus in my electorate is pretty conservative”,

–          And Warren Entsch, the Liberal Member for Leichardt in far north Queensland, supports same sex marriage rights and plans to introduce a bill on civil unions, should these current bills fail.

Tony Abbott’s sister Chris recently ran for office in the Sydney City Council elections. Abbott wrote a personal letter of support to her constituents, arguing that “it takes real guts for a basically conservative person to admit she’s gay and to build a new life based on who she really is”.

It takes guts for anyone to admit they are gay. And it also takes guts to admit your views on a topic have ‘evolved’ or changed, as US President Barack Obama has on the issue of same sex marriage.

We know from paid maternity leave, that Abbott (“over my dead body”) is not incapable of his views evolving.

At the very least, he should uphold Menzies principles of the Liberal Party and allow his members a free vote on the issue.

It may take some time for politicians to play ‘catch up’ and realise that human rights are indivisible. But until then, Members of Parliament who have already come to this conclusion, should, and have an obligation to, exercise their vote with their consciences.