1. This article addresses comments recently made by Prime Minister Julia Gillard concerning the Coalition's unclear statements on whether it will allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage.
2. Gillard's comments are misleading in that she takes credit for ensuring a conscience vote on the issue, when in fact she did so in order to avoid all Labor MPs being required to vote for same-sex marriage legislation.
3. For this reason, Gillard's actions removed any chance of same-sex marriage passing last year.
4. Claims that a conscience vote for both sides is the determining factor in a successful push for same-sex marriage are misleading. Comparisons with New Zealand and the UK show that in those cases, the personal support of leaders on both sides, and the overwhelming support of the main centre-left party, were essential.
5. Gillard's own statements on her reasons for opposing same-sex marriage do not stand up to scrutiny.
6. As I find both Gillard's claimed reasons and several other proposed explanations unconvincing, I suspect her motive is connected to internal ALP power plays.
7. Gillard's criticism of the Coalition on this issue, while warranted in isolation, is hypocritical.
Perhaps the Liberal Blue colour scheme is starting to infiltrate my thought processes, but I feel a sudden desire to defend Tony Abbott from unfair criticism! And I'm going to do it on a subject on which the Opposition Leader is completely indefensible, namely gay rights. (As readers may have guessed from the title, I am strongly supportive of federal same-sex marriage, and I consider the arguments against it to be nonsense. For a longer statement of my position see the disclosure at the bottom of my article on the Tasmanian LegCo same-sex marriage debate.)
The unfair criticism in question came from Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and it came in veiled form in comments about the prospects of same-sex marriage legislation a few weeks ago. Here are some of the things Gillard told the ABC:
" What I can do here, and I've already done it, is ensured that there will be a conscience vote in the Labor Party.
But when we look around the world and those countries that have moved
towards same-sex marriage, the key factor is that politicians have had
conscience votes including on the conservative side of politics.
Look at New Zealand, Prime Minister Key, I know him well, a conservative sister political party of the Liberal Party here.
Well this does matter to many Australians. I think you have an
obligation to be clear with them. I'm clear about my position and about
how my members are allowed to vote. I think the Leader of the Opposition
owes people the same courtesy."
In discussing the above, I'm going to start with the numbers on the floor. The House of Representatives rejected same-sex marriage by a vote of 98-42. Four crossbenchers voted for the change together with 38 Labor members, and 26 Labor members voted against together with two crossbenchers. Seven Labor, two Liberal and one Independent (Slipper) did not vote, mostly because they were not able to do so for some reason or other.
A conscience vote peeling off even a third of the Coalition (an unlikely estimate if one was allowed) would not have caused the bill to pass.
The implied comparison with New Zealand and the UK is misleading. In the UK Parliament, the Conservatives may well be the government, but they hold only about a third of the seats, compared with ours where they hold nearly half. It is a socially progressive parliament. In the NZ Parliament, the conservative government holds a similar portion of seats to the Coalition here, but an important factor was the almost-unanimous strength of support from the Labour opposition. With 30 NZ Labour MPs voting for same-sex marriage, and only 4 against, only 11 National votes out of 59 would have been needed to carry the bill. (In the end with the Prime Minister's support there were an impressive 27 votes from his own side.)
So to suggest it is all about a conscience vote on the conservative side is just misleading. It could just as easily be argued that strong support from the progressive side and its leader for same-sex marriage, and a balance of power that does not greatly favour the conservatives, are crucial elements. The latter is important because if the opportunity to pass same-sex marriage in this Australian parliament has indeed been missed, then the prospects for getting it passed in a parliament with, say, 100 Coalition members to 50 Labor/Ind, are not looking too flash.
(Curiously, Sportsbet are now taking bets on when Australia will legalise same-sex marriage, with 2020 or later leading at $2.30 followed by 2016 at $6 with this year a distant last at $21. Thanks to the reader who told me about this.)
When A Conscience Vote Isn't A Triumph
From the tone of Gillard's comments one might get the impression that Gillard had done her best to get a conscience vote for Labor members and that the alternative would have been Labor voting against as a block, and that she had therefore done her bit to give the reform a fair go although she was personally opposed to it.
The facts are very much the reverse. Official ALP policy is to support same-sex marriage and has been since the 2011 ALP national conference. The decision to allow a conscience vote was in order to allow members opposed to same-sex marriage, such as PM Gillard, to vote against the will of the majority of their party. The motion to allow them to do so passed narrowly, 208-184. Considering that Gillard herself opposed same-sex marriage and that a policy mandating a vote for it would have been seen as a humiliation and a blow to her leadership, it is hard to escape the conclusion that had the party had a leader who supported the reform, the conscience vote issue would have gone down very differently. Either a conscience vote would not have been allowed at all, or else it would have been allowed but much more sparsely used. There is a glaring discrepancy in that 9% of UK Labour MPs voted against same-sex marriage, 12% of NZ Labour MPs did so but in Australia the figure (of those voting) was a massive 41%. That although there is little difference in popular support levels for same-sex marriage between the three nations.
It's probably not the case that a compulsory vote in favour of same-sex marriage for Labor MHRs in Australia would have carried the day alone, but it would have been extremely close. With Slipper not voting, Burke in the chair and Katter and Windsor against, the vote on the floor with all present would have been tied 74-74 and Anna Burke would have been obliged by convention to declare it lost.
In practice it is unlikely it would have happened exactly like that. Variables that could have affected the vote would have included any members who might have been absent if unable to obtain a pair, and the attitudes of each party towards those in their number who tried to buck the party line. Most likely Labor would have had to allow some degree of conscience vote for the fervently opposed, but this then would have created much more pressure on the Coalition to do the same. Furthermore, Coalition backbenchers had an effective conscience vote anyway; it was just the case that in the circumstances little use was made of it. Liberal Senator Sue Boyce stated she would have crossed the floor if it had made a difference, and eventually abstained.
The temptation to cross the floor on this issue would have been much stronger if by doing so a handful of Coalition MPs could actually make a difference, and those in strongly pro-same-sex marriage electorates would have come under a lot more pressure from their constituents to do so. A close vote on the floor on same-sex marriage would have placed Malcolm Turnbull in a much more interesting position than one that was a foregone conclusion.
What can be said is that had the Prime Minister not opposed same-sex marriage, there is a realistic possibility it would have been passed in this term of parliament, irrespective of the Coalition's position and its leader's position. This only doesn't apply if it is assumed the Coalition would have applied strict party discipline even to its backbench, something which it typically doesn't do and prides itself on not doing as a point of difference.
On the other hand, given that 41% of Labor MHRs voting were against same-sex marriage, it is unlikely that any position that realistically could have been taken by Abbott or the Coalition on the issue would have resulted in same-sex marriage passing. Even in the most generous scenario (leader suddenly supportive and full conscience vote) the numbers would not have been there, as there are not enough Coalition MHRs who are even close to in-principle support, and there was no likelihood of party policy supporting the move.
In summary of the above, Julia Gillard was far more directly responsible for the first vote on same-sex marriage failing than Tony Abbott was. Gillard effectively ensured the vote's failure; Abbott merely blew out the margin (as in my view did Adam Bandt, with his poorly-judged and patronising stunt of forcing MHRs to consult with their electorates on the issue). In drawing this conclusion, I add that Abbott bears indirect responsibilit, because of a very long career of prominent and at times explicit public homophobia that he has yet to adequately recant and apologise for.
When You Eliminate The Impossible ...
Julia Gillard, so far as I know, has never said anything remotely homophobic in her life. (And no, I don't agree that opposing same-sex marriage automatically makes someone a homophobe.) But this only deepens the mystery: why is Julia Gillard opposed to same-sex marriage?
It's a mystery in the first place because Gillard ticks so many identity-politics boxes as someone who should be liberally minded on the issue. The first female Prime Minister, who attacked judgemental attitudes on the basis of gender in her famous misogyny speech. Atheist, no children, never married but currently partnered. All of these are individually indicators of support for same-sex marriage in polling breakdowns, with the mild exception of "no children". However being partnered without children is a combined indicator of support. Throw in that Gillard is a Labor voter and she is ticking at least four boxes for strong support and on that basis a pollster would be pretty hard pressed to find a voter who resembles Julia Gillard (but without being a politician) and is anti-SSM. I'm thinking the "Gillard demographic" would split something like 85-15 on the issue.
I could get really silly on this and throw in things like Gillard's hair colour (just ask Adriana Taylor MLC who brought up redheadedness as a grounds of social discrimination in her speech on SSM!) and being born in Wales as reasons why Gillard should be even more likely to empathise with a minority group. However, there's no polling that I have seen on such aspects.
I am going to run down some of the possible reasons that are offered for why Gillard opposes same-sex marriage and comment on them. The one that I think is the real reason is at the bottom, but it's not something I claim any degree of certainty on and it's all one of the great political mysteries of our time.
Gillard's Own Words
Here are some examples of Gillard's own comments on the issue:
Daily Telegaph March 21 2011
"Ms Gillard said she was "on the conservative side" of the gay
marriage issue "because of the way our society is and how we got here", [..]
think that there are some important things from our past that need to
continue to be part of our present and part of our future," she said.
"If I was in a different walk of life, if I'd continued in the law and
was partner of a law firm now, I would express the same view, that I
think for our culture, for our heritage, the Marriage Act and marriage
being between a man and a woman has a special status."
The Australian, same date
"I had a pro-union, pro-Labor upbringing in a quite conservative
family, in a sense of personal values. I mean we believed in lots of
things that are old fashioned in the modern age," she said.
ABC Radio National 18 Nov 2012:
"I do believe that in our society,
with our heritage, with our traditions, with our history, that marriage
has a special place and special definition, so I've been very clear
about that, but I will also being saying to party members at our
national conference that it is the right forum to be debating ideas
about this topic and more broadly."
Q&A June 12 2012:
"I think you can have a relationship of love and commitment and trust
and understanding that doesn't need a marriage certificate associated
with it [..]
That's my life experience - so I'm speaking from that life experience."
Live chat 21 June 2012 - especially useful as post-Conference:
I don’t think that heterosexual relationships are more valued than
same-sex relationships. I think people who are in loving and committed
relationships – all of those relationships should be valued. I think my
relationship should be valued, and I’m not married. So I don’t see,
through my eyes, the discriminator about whether a relationship is
valued being whether or not a couple, heterosexual or same-sex, is married.
I’ve got a view about the cultural status of marriage in our
society, so it’s not about my view about valuing relationships, it’s my
personal view about the cultural status of marriage in our society. You
don’t agree with me – a lot of other people don’t agree with me. And
you’ve pointed to opinion polls about all of this. But for me, politics
isn’t about making decisions based on opinion polls, it’s about making
decisions you feel are right. And we wouldn’t have done some of the big
tough things we’ve done as a government if we just got out the opinion
polls every morning.
But this issue, it goes to some deeply personal questions – for
some, deeply personal questions about their religious views; for some,
deeply personal questions about what they want to do with their own
lives. For you, it’s about presumably what you want to do in your own
life, so these are very individual, personal perspectives on the world.
(Gillard also told Marie Claire magazine in Dec 2012: "...we should find other ways of recognising the value of other relationships...").
Ah yes, such "deeply personal" questions that the Prime Minister is happy to personally vote for deeply personal decisions to take away other people's ability to make deeply personal decisions that will never affect her, but that will affect them. Just another example of what is wrong with the institution of "conscience voting" as practiced in Australian politics. It's especially interesting that the PM defends religion as a "deeply personal" excuse for policies that tell other people what to do (which it isn't) but doesn't even have that pretext herself.
Gillard's position is intellectually very weak indeed. It's all very well to argue that male-female marriages have great significance in society and should continue to be valued. But that is just an argument for continuing to recognise and value male-female marriages. It is not an argument for denying the right of same-sex couples to get married, and it is especially not an argument that the exclusion of same-sex couples is an aspect that "need[s] to
continue to be part of our present and part of our future". This is for the usual trivially obvious reason that allowing a small number of same-sex couples to marry does not stop people from having mixed-sex marriages, and does not stop people from valuing mixed-sex marriages, and that anyone who fears that it does has no more support for their position than those who fear the sky falling, impending Armageddon, black cats on Friday the 13th and so on.
Another very evident weakness in Gillard's arguments is that her argument that same-sex and mixed-sex relationships are equally valued is that she thinks they are equally valuable. But whether two different relationship types are valued is not about whether Julia Gillard values them; it is about whether everyone else does as well. And likewise, the issues in the SSM debate have nothing to do about whether couples can trust and love each other without a marriage certificate, and much to do with how such relationships are perceived by others, and particularly to do with the constant attempts by homophobes to argue that same-sex relationships are intrinsically unstable.
The combination of the weakness of Gillard's position (not that any position against same-sex marriage is strong) and the identity-politics incongruity created by her taking it, has caused a lot of people to suspect that her stated reasons aren't her real ones.
The Ghost Of The Groupers?
One defence I have seen concerning the PM's position supporting a conscience vote rather than a compulsory vote in favour of SSM is the fear that social radicalism will split the party. On this view the ALP is seen as a coalition of anti-conservative forces, not all of which are socially progressive - a broad amalgam of social democrats, liberals, progressives and traditional unionists. You have to throw the socially-conservative trade-union types the odd bone by letting them have "conscience votes" otherwise they'll spit the dummy, join the DLP and keep Labor out of office for more or less forever.
There are a lot of things wrong with this argument. The biggest one is that it either ignores or refashions the event that led to the mid-1950s Split in the first place. It was not a case of a bunch of social conservatives taking their bat and ball and going home because they didn't get their way on a social issue. Rather, the proto-DLP elements were the the subject of a purge of sorts led by the Labor leader at the time, Dr Evatt. To argue that a series of actions in which dissenting members (in that case mainly over the issue of communism) were either expelled or marginalised (and not just for policy reasons either), forms a precedent for dissenting members quitting the party over a social issue while still otherwise having access to normal power mechanisms, is silly. Especially given that Julia Gillard did so much to deliver those power mechanisms back to the usual players after they were briefly nicked by Kevin Rudd.
The proportion of Labor supporters who are fanatically against same-sex marriage is, in any case, very small. It's doubtful that even if they did leave it would harm the party as badly as it was harmed by the 1950s split- or as badly as it has proved so good at harming itself in so many other ways.
The Fear of the Wedge?
The external version of the above. This is the view, dating from that ancient period in which her government was briefly competitive in polling, that Gillard did not support same-sex marriage because she thought it would lose votes. Of course, the party would have been well aware that polling showed voters generally support same-sex marriage, but that doesn't mean a lot if those who don't include a few percent of swing voters who will shift their vote to the Coalition over the issue. Since the Australian bill was defeated in mid-September 2012, we've seen Barack Obama take to the polls with a pro-same-sex marriage position (potentially a much riskier proposition in the USA because of the even greater degree of political religiosity there) and get re-elected without problems. So any currency that sort of concern might have had seems to have disappeared. Furthermore, the ALP has modernised its attitudes on social issues before without copping such backlashes just on account of doing so.
Not Just Anti-Same-Sex Marriage, Anti-All-Marriage?
This one was offered up by one of the more irate posters that Poll Bludger has (or had? think she'd banned now) to suffer and I was quite surprised to see a few others then start supporting it. The idea here is that Gillard is actually still secretly a radical feminist from her student politics days, and that she dislikes the institution of marriage and wants to get rid of it. This is supposedly born out by her personal life consisting of unmarried partnerships and, in the distant past, marriage-wrecking affairs.
Now in a way it's not as silly as it sounds. Some feminists, who see the institution of mixed-sex marriage as implicitly loaded with patriarchal baggage, do find it rather annoying that gay rights activists want marriage just when they feel they have completely exposed said institution's defects. And some mixed-sex couples who choose not to get married (like Julia Gillard and Tim Mathieson, at least so far) may feel that they have to fight very hard to get their own relationships treated as seriously as marriages. Modern straight non-marrying couples who see modern gay couples wanting to get married might in some cases see this as something of a sellout of the whole case against heterosexist marriage norms and the stigma of supposedly "living in sin".
However, this is one where the identity politics play out in much the same way for me as they do for the Prime Minister (save that I have not wrecked any marriages that I'm aware of). While I certainly still hear of heterosexual couples experiencing discrimination for not marrying (mainly from appallingly judgemental relatives) I don't think the social stigma against unmarried straight couples is anything like it used to be, and I have never experienced it from other individual people myself.
Indeed, I think the vast majority of Australian society now treats unmarried mixed-sex couples a lot better than Australian governments do. Examples of poor treatment of unmarried mixed-sex couples by governments include:
* the offensive term "de facto", which implies that a relationship is merely an informal and presumably slightly second-rate facsimile of marriage.
* the Centrelink practice of assuming that cohabiting couples can be treated as if they are economically married and share all finances (an assumption that is also offensive to some married couples who choose not to do this).
* discrimination, at least in some states, in the ease and costs involved in obtaining formal relationship recognition independent of marriage, compared to that of obtaining the same by getting married (this has also been an issue for same-sex couples)
I mention these not only to foreshadow possible future rants about the middle one but because there are many ways in which a person with an identity-politics concern about the status of unmarried mixed-sex couples might pursue this. And I've not really seen any signs that PM Gillard is concerned about such issues generally or feels a pressing need to politically target the institution of marriage. Indeed, why should she, given that her own parents were happily married for over 50 years and that her affection and respect for her parents is obvious. When she says that she's just decided marriage isn't for her, I believe that, and I don't think any more needs to be read into it.
Gillard Opposes Same-Sex Marriage Because Her Family Does?
Seen this one a few times too. Apparently, even though Tony Abbott's daughters have enough brain cells to realise their father's position on same-sex marriage belongs in the distant past, Prime Ministers are not to be credited with the same ability to think independently of their parents.
Internal Party Issues?
This is where I suspect it is really at. I don't believe any of the other cryptic explanations I have seen so far, and to take Gillard's own words on the issue seriously is to conclude that the PM is an insensitive halfwit, which I do not believe to be true. My hypothesis, then, is that Gillard's personal heel-dragging on one of the greatest social policy no-brainers of our time (even after opposition ceased to be party policy) has been motivated by political debts within the party, and perhaps even by fears that if she switched to supporting reform, some socially conservative elements within the party might have switched back to Kevin Rudd.
But it's not something I have any positive evidence for, simply what is left over when I dismiss all the explanations I find unconvincing. Perhaps someone out there has a new and better reason that hasn't been canvassed before.
Whatever the reason for the PM's stubborn opposition to same-sex marriage, its impact has been clear. Australia has missed a chance, and if we are headed for a couple of terms of comfortable Abbott-led majorities, there may well not be another for a while. The main reason the chance was missed was nothing to do with whether or not the Coalition allowed a conscience vote, and everything to do with a PM who had a great opportunity to give same-sex marriage a real chance as part of a coherent personal platform, but instead chose to stay in the way.
As the last chances to avoid being seen as completely silly on the issue in the sometimes inattentive eyes of history evaporate, our Prime Minister is playing minor games with the Opposition Leader on the question of whether or not he is clear with the people on whether or not he will allow a few of his members to vote more progressively than her. She says "I think the Leader of the Opposition
owes people the same courtesy".
Prime Minister, the people who are owed courtesy in this debate are those who are actually affected by it. Those who are affected by it are same-sex couples who wish to marry. You voted to illiberally and without any shred of a valid reason deny them the courtesy of allowing their decisions to be accepted by government. You personally and directly caused dozens of your colleagues to be allowed to vote alongside you to deny same-sex couples that courtesy. Having done so, you have no business telling Tony Abbott what courtesies he owes, since this is matter on which you have displayed less than no courtesy to those who are affected, and may in so doing have set back their valid cause more seriously than even Tony Abbott has or will.
Of course, Abbott should stop the vague, untrustworthy hedging and issue a clear statement on whether or not all Coalition MPs will be granted a conscience vote on same-sex marriage issues in the next parliament. It's just that the Prime Minister is the last person who should be berating him for not doing so, because the main good it might achieve is some small advance in an issue that the PM had an opportunity to massively advance, but chose instead to set backwards. The principle subject of Julia Gillard's misogyny speech was Tony Abbott's rank hypocrisy on gender issues, displayed when he tried to attack Labor for propping up Peter Slipper. This time, the hypocrisy is Julia Gillard's.
Update (12 August): SBS News has some coverage of this now largely academic matter. Gillard had supposedly given an undertaken to Joe de Bruyn that she would resist against same-sex marriage, even though this was not an explicit condition of support.
Update 1 October: Gillard's most recent "conversation" with Anne Summers contained the following after a young boy asked the inevitable question "Um ... how come you didn't let gay people get married?":
"[..] I do understand that the position I took on gay marriage perplexed many people, given who I am, and so many of my beliefs. I've actually lots of conversations with many of my old friends about this, some of whom who have got a different view than me. But, I'm a lot older than you, and when I went to university and started forming my political views of the world, I mean, we weren't talking about gay marriage; indeed, as women, as feminists, we were critiquing marriage. And if someone had said to me as a twenty-year-old "What about, you know, you get into a white dress to symbolise virginity, and you get your father to walk you down an aisle, and give you away to a man who's waiting at the end of the aisle?" ...I would have looked with puzzlement, like, "what on earth would I do that for?"
I'm conscious that, maybe, these views have dated, and maybe the way in which people interpret marriage now is different to the kinds of interpretations I had. I think that marriage in our society could play its traditional role, and we could come up with other institutions which value partnerships, value love, value lifetime commitments. You know, I have a valuable lifetime commitment and haven't felt the need at any point to make that into a marriage. So, I know that's a really different reasoning than most people come at these issues, but that's my reasoning. When will gay marriage be law in Australia? Well, it won't be about what I think; even if I was still in parliament it wouldn't be about what I thought, it would be about what every member of parliament thought. And the next really big thing that has to happen for gay marriage to be seriously considered by the federal parliament, is for there to be a conscience vote on all sides of politics, and I hope that comes."
The twaddle at the end has been dealt with more than enough in this article, pointing out that Gillard's influence in all likelihood killed off a mandated Labor vote in favour of same-sex marriage, which would have made the 43rd Parliament consider the issue very seriously indeed. However, the first part of the answer seems to strengthen the anti-all-marriage interpretation of Gillard's views, except that it doesn't answer the same questions about it that I already raised. Why, if that is all there is to it, did Gillard feel entitled to make that decision on behalf of others, who may have shared her view about traditional marriage but had very different views about either marriage as it exists today, or specifically same-sex marriage?
As I mentioned above, identity politics based on experience or feminism is not a sufficient answer, because it is possible to have the same identity politics for many of the same reasons and yet to take a completely different view.