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Nov 11, 2011

Feeney: why I support a conscience vote on gay marriage

I have been particularly struck by the testimony of same-sex couples about their desire to see their relationships treated with the same dignity and respect as heterosexual relationships, writes David Feeney, Labor Senator for Victoria.

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In December, Labor’s national conference will debate the party’s policy on the vexed issue of amending the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. Labor’s policy is currently one of opposition to this change, but it’s no secret that a large number of party members believe that the time has come to change our policy.

As a happily married Catholic male, I started out with a moderately conservative view on this subject. I’ve always been opposed to discrimination, including against gay and lesbian people. But I also support the institution of marriage and the nuclear family as the best place to raise children. I was not initially persuaded that the wording of the Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, should be changed.

Over the past year, I have met with advocates of both sides of this debate. I have been impressed with the sincerity and strength of conviction of both sides.

But I have been particularly struck by the testimony of same-sex couples about their desire to see their relationships treated with the same dignity and respect as heteros-xual relationships. As a result of these discussions, I have come to the conclusion that this is a change that should be made.

A necessary part of such a policy, however, must be a clear provision that no marriage celebrant, whether a minister of religion or a civil celebrant, can be forced to conduct a marriage ceremony that is in violation of their conscience. Marriage celebrants must be protected against the possibility of prosecution under anti-discrimination law if they decline to conduct a same-sex marriage.

I am aware that some of my Labor colleagues adhere to the view that the traditional view of marriage, as a relationship between a man and a woman, should be preserved. These members rightly make the point that when they joined the Labor Party, and when they sought preselection as Labor candidates, support for same-sex marriage was not part of Labor’s policy. They argue that they should not now be required to vote against their convictions if a bill to change the Marriage Act comes before the federal Parliament. I agree that they should not be forced to choose between their deeply held religious convictions and their loyalty to Labor.

The obvious solution to this is to allow members of all parties to have a conscience vote when such a bill is introduced. Australia has a long history of the use of the conscience vote to manage issues of this kind. Issues on which conscience votes have been held in Australian parliaments include abortion, euthanasia, prostitution, divorce, the death penalty, family law, gambling law, sex discrimination, racial discrimination, liquor licensing, fluoridation, daylight saving, in vitro fertilisation and stem cell research. The Marriage Act itself was passed through federal parliament in 1961 on a conscience vote, so that members who were opposed to the legalisation of divorce could vote according to their consciences.

So I was disappointed to see my colleague Mark Butler arguing in The Sydney Morning Herald against a conscience vote on this issue. I agree with his view that Labor’s tradition is that once the party makes a decision at its national conference, then all members are bound to support that decision. But there is no necessity for national conference to create a binding policy. It is open to national conference simply to allow Labor MPs a conscience vote when a private member’s bill to change the act is introduced. It will then be up to the advocates of both sides of this debate to gain the support of a majority of MPs and Senators.

As a South Australian, Mark Butler no doubt knows that it was that great reforming SA premier, Don Dunstan, who 40 years ago passed the first laws decriminalising homosexuality in Australia. Mark Butler may not recall that this reform was carried out in stages, by way of a series of conscience votes on private members’ bills, rather than by way of government legislation that Labor members were bound to support. I think this is a sound precedent, and I will be arguing at national conference that we follow it.

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47 thoughts on “Feeney: why I support a conscience vote on gay marriage

  1. Blair Martin

    Senator, a conscience vote is doomed to failure. Less LNP supporters of marriage equality will cross the floor than troglodyte ALP members going to sit with the Opposition. I use the term “troglodyte” deliberately, because I do not share your warm and fuzzy feelings for your colleagues who wish to perpetuate inequality and discrimination.

    There is a lot of nonsense being spoken about “conscience vote” – Senator, when did I get a chance to vote on your marriage? When did I get a chance to have my “conscience” assuaged over all the rights and privileges that you hold as a married (heterosexually), white male with legitimate, biological offspring? Marriage equality is NOT a matter of morality where conscience is deemed to be a advisable benchmark but it is a matter of civil rights. Never should anyone’s civil rights be put up for a popular vote.

    I found your other remark that those poor souls who joined the ALP at one point when marriage equality wasn’t part of the platform but now have to accept it should be accommodated also untenable. Did those who joined the ALP have their consciences wrapped in cotton wool when the ALP changed direction in the last thirty years on areas of economic policy, industrial relations, even asylum seekers? If they don’t like the policy, then they should look for a party that better suits their backward views.

    Also, raising the anti-discrimination argument to protect people so they can be offensive and discriminatory is sheer bunkum. Are Roman Catholic priests regularly hauled before the Anti-Discrimination Commission because they refuse to marry non-Catholics or divorced people? If you have met with the passionate people you say you’ve met with, you’d have realized that none of us who want full marriage equality want to legally compel religious institutions to leave behind their narrow, outdated view of the world. That is a fight those of us that profess a faith and a membership of a denomination are more than prepared to fight in those denominations to effect change and bring the true message of the Christian Gospel to light. As for the vast majority of Australians who are secular and have no regular attachment to a religious faith, the issue is a non-starter and not part of their debate for full marriage equality.

    Senator, you are entitled to your views, however asking us to remain quiet and patient and just wait for things to change slowly over time is not going to cut it anymore. The ALP betrayed the LGBTQI community of Australia when they supported Howard’s egregious Marriage Act 2004. That betrayal has not been forgotten. Prime Minister Gillard has the opportunity to show us that Labor is the party of the fair go, the party of equal access for all Australians and not a party hidebound to antiquated traditions and outmoded belief systems which are not based in fact.

  2. Reuben

    It’s no secret that a large number of party members believe that the time has come to pay lip service to a few people that perhaps didn’t vote for us because of our archaic bigotry.

    As a happily married Celestial Teapotist male, I started out with a moderately conservative view on this subject. I’ve always feigned opposition to discrimination, including against gay and lesbian people. But I also believe that same-s-x couples are inherently inferior to heteros-xual couples and view the nuclear family as the best place to raise children.

    I have been particularly struck by the testimony of same-s-x couples about their desire to see their relationships treated with the same dignity and respect as heteros-xual relationships. As a result of these discussions, I have come to the conclusion that I should develop the pretence of considering this a semi-serious issue.

    A necessary part of such a policy, however, must be a clear provision that we must legislate discrimination by ensuring that no marriage celebrant, whether a minister of religion or a civil celebrant, can be forced to conduct a marriage ceremony that is in violation of the Teapot’s teachings. Marriage celebrants must be protected from some wanna-be Rosa Parks hoping to keep her seat on the bus.

    I am aware that some of my Labor colleagues refuse to admit that same-s-x marriage was around a long time before we thought up the Celestial Teapot and that it will be around a long time after humanity has forgotten all about Its Divine Orbit. They argue that they should not now be required to vote against their convictions if a bill to change the Marriage Act comes before the federal Parliament. I agree that my particular flavour of loony cult takes precedence to the rights of others and should form the basis for federal legislation.

    It was that great reforming SA premier, Don Dunstan, who 40 years ago passed the first laws decriminalising homos-xuality in Australia. This reform was carried out in stages, by way of a series of conscience votes on private members’ bills, rather than by way of government legislation that Labor members were bound to support. I think this is a sound precedent, and I will be arguing at national conference that we ruin the hopes and dreams of a generation by desperately clinging to our potty prejudices and dragging same-s-x equality out over a period of 40 years.

  3. Blair Martin

    @Simon Mansfield: thank you for your response, which completely ignored the question I asked of you and then propagated your own (false) hypothesis and historical analysis.

    Green apologist? Are you using the correct philosophical term or the modern debased one? I am certainly not the latter and doubt I need to dignify the supposition you pose with the former. I am not a member of any party – left, centre or right. Your sweeping statement about European multiparty government comes with no supporting data, repeating your belief does not make it correct or justified. No multiparty left-wing government has been in power in the Eurozone which has subsequently caused the economic crises. All states with economic ruination staring them in the face are states that have been governed by centre-right/right wing parties since the turn of the century. Only one country in that time period, Ireland, had the Greens in a coalition government, as a very minor player with the despots of the Fianna Fáil who set about playing fast and loose with the Celtic Tiger. The governments of Italy, Greece, Spain that are responsible for the economic chaos were all right wing, but this is a digression from the debate on this page.

    I do agree with your dim view of the Labor Right which savaged someone who should have been a natural Right leader (Rudd) and replaced him with a puppet (yes, I agree with that too) – however, Gillard personally believes in marriage equality yet the terms and delicate balancing she has to play with means her public utterances are nowhere near those personal leanings. Gillard is a lawyer and a politician – and from what I’ve been told (and told by members of the Opposition) she is a master negotiator. Perhaps, like Keating, she will have her finest hour out of a bloody mess and leave a legacy that no amount of Abbott wrecking will ever undo.

    Now, about this crystal ball you so luckily have… care to share things like the Brownlow count for 2012, the results of the Men’s 4×100 Free relay in London and what exactly will happen on 21/12/12? I’d like to get my bets in with Centrebet now please.

  4. Liz45

    @EDWARD – Have you or any of your friends had or are undergoing treatment for your selective memories? You can read all about Howard’s lies – just put it into your search engine. Then there’s the famous Abbott LIE on health rebates? Remember that? Had to go back on that a couple of months after the ’04 Election? There was the big Howard LIES re Worstchoices? eg. Unfair dismissal Laws only applying to workplaces of 20 or less – after the ’04 election, guess what? Yep! workplaces of 100 people!

    Abbott, Howard, Turnbull agreed with the policy prior to ’07 Election on climate change. For purely political opportunism, Abbott went against his own commitment – or, in other words LIED! As did Turnbull, who now tries to keep both sides happy – how gutless can you get?

    The fact is that Julia Gillard made THAT statement once – after the Election, of which the Greens became part of a coalition, she just bought forward other statements she’d made on climate change policy – one of them in one of Murdoch’s rags either on polling day or the day before?

    Action on climate change has been ALP policy for how long now? 5 – 10 years? Strictly speaking, she just adhered to ALP policy? Perhaps ‘encouraged’ by the Greens, but hang on, they were also elected by the people of Australia? People like you carry on as though they have no right to be there? In fact, if there was fairness in the system, there’d be more than one Greens members in the House of Reps? Go on the AEC website and look at the % of votes, and how they turned into Seats? Not just at all!

    There are at least 34 documented Howard lies. Where were you while that was happening? Where was your outrage then? Silent and selective!

  5. Edward James

    @ LIZ45 Link http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds go to ADO21. pdf where you and anyone else may read what I published about John Howard. Politics is a team sport, I dont see any good teams out there! I may well run another year of ads naming names and exposing the garbage our elected political allsorts are passing off as good governnce. Edward James

  6. Edward James

    History from Crikey string for those people who cant be bothered to click my links. http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds Link to political attack ads identifying corruption accommodated by our political allsorts at all three levels of government. Edward James 0243419140
    The circus has arrived! or should I say returned.
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 24 August 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
    I’d like to see all the less savoury “personal habits” of members published – to show us just how ordinary they are – especially “The God Squad”, telling (and legislating) everyone else how to live their lives.
    Suzanne Blake
    Posted Wednesday, 24 August 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
    We enjoyed the fixed price feed at the local RSL tonight.

    Not surprised that the talk and anger was being sheeted home to Thomson…. How could a Union boss do that.

    I wonder if his replacement at the next election can overcome the this or will they be napalmed? I feel the latter.
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 25 August 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
    Lets keep in mind Suzanne Blake, Thompson is simply an integral part of the Labor Party, whose members at the bottom of the grass roots community are often standing beside us as we go about earning our living and feeding our families. Many of us are in fact the working poor identified by Cathy Jackson when she was exposing her concerns on the ABC on Wednesday 24 August. I have spent tens of thousands of my dollars in full and double page ads, in an effort to expose the same sort of abuse. I understand it is silly to expect our trusted elected representatives will turn over a new leaf and start acting in the best interest of their constituents. Never the less I and I am sure many others continue to live and act in the hope something will change.
    Edward James 0243419140
    http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds
    Link to political attack ads
    corruption I identify as accommodated
    by our elected representatives at all
    three levels of government.
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 25 August 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
    I am awaiting guidance from people from both sides of the two parties of politics not much preferred who like me have spent years of their lives trying to expose abuse of our due process. I accept people clicking this link
    http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds could not give a stuff about a local hospital. But please click through the other ads and you will see photos of John Robertson and John Hatzistergos political dead wood. The fact is these politicians are not doing your political business because people like me have exposed them as political dead wood Edward James. the Gosford Foghorn 02 43419140
    Suzanne Blake
    Posted Thursday, 25 August 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
    @ Edward James

    Well said, and I see you also live in the electorate with your phone number on the post.

    The left wing clowns on this board, don’t understand how poorly we have been treated by Federal and even State members for decades, even though we are NOW a marginal seat (Dobell and Robertson).
    Edward James
    Posted Friday, 26 August 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink
    The focus on Thomson is no longer enough for me, journalist worth their wages understand politicians have selective memories and when cornered will lie with consummate ease. I do not care that the police are looking at certain matters related to the misuse of the HSU credit card which may see Craig Thompson find his way into a law court. I hope voters keep banging on about the fact that so many of our politicians are simply not fit to represent anyone, they use enormous amounts of our taxes to pay minions who act as a barrier between constituents and their elected reps. Yet their fellow party members wont kick them out of the respective parties. The two parties not much preferred and our Federal Parliament itself have been brought into disrepute by this national circus. We read weeks ago about John Della Bosca and Graham Richardson warning pre-selectors about Craig Thompson. What the police do or do not do in another place has nothing to do with the on going conversations we share in the peoples courts of public opinion! Politicians have not yet regulated away our freedom to make our poor opinion of their woeful work product a matter of public discussion! Edward James
    I do not understand why people who post on these strings wont pick up a phone and have a converstaion with me on 0243419140 I am also surprised the people who moderate this site hav not tried the phone number. I am telling my readers a local council has mislead a coroner and I on the public record telling readers an atourney general and a several party leaders are ignoring published of of corruption. Perhaps everyone is just too busy to overtsight how their taxes are wasted ?

  7. Liz45

    @MOIRA BYRNE – By the “Celestial Teapot” I think you mean the catholic church? I hold them all responsible – every last one of them, except those who were abused or went out of their way to support victims. Today on ‘The Conversation Hour’ (you can download it)is a repeat interview with an abused victim who was once a MP? His story, and the response/s he received add weight to my view – they’re still propping up the perpetrators in a blatant, arrogant and intimidating manner? Those who are apologists, who do NOT speak out, are just as bad as those b******s who committed these major crimes. In fact, due to our isolation, Australia could have more victims than any other country – including the US?

    How many of the catholic MP’s even go anywhere near this issue? Name one!

    @EDWARD JAMES – I believe you! Have you taken your assertions and evidence to ICAC in NSW? Mind you, some of the allegations re some Wollongong Councillors didn’t result in charges laid. I accept, that in some cases, there could be ‘smoking guns’ but no or little evidence?

    Re the allegations against Thomson? When one considers the crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence in Australia, coupled with the horrific incidence of murdered women by their husbands/partners (one every 7 – 10 days?) you have to accept, that there’s an ingrained culture of violent attitudes towards women and girls? Add to this, child sexual abuse, and the scenario is very chilling indeed! IF Thomson did these things, he’s just one of many OUT there!

    Look at the response when sports people are accused of misogynist and/or criminal acts against women? It’s the women who are reviled in the media, particularly by ????guess which media outlet?

    Thomson, if guilty, is a manifestation of an ingrained and cultural philosophy that classes women less than human! That’s what we have to fight against!

    We still have to adopt the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ ideal – otherwise we’re all weakened!

  8. Edward James

    LIZ 45 This is a link to pages of the Peninsula News a local paper which has been distributed free on the Central Coast for over ten years. http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds at least have a look at this photo of my father in his eighties protesting from a wheel chair and hospital bed outside the oldest parliament in this country. A staunch Labor supporter who died waiting for The Australian Labor Party to honor their creed and protect him from an out of control local government. AD007.pdf.
    Material which has been published in the public domain with other licenced publications for several years.
    Using the court of public opinion is our right. Our Parliaments make and regulate the laws. That is why a person taking government into court is on a fools errand. Last year we had two property owners who refused to let Parramatta City Council acquire their properties under the provisions of the just lands acquisition act. They argued Parramatta Council wanted to take their property and give it to GROCON as part of a deal the council had with the property developers to build an enormous development in partnership with council, with zoneing heights extending to around forty floors.
    The property owners were unhappy at the pittance Parramatta Council was offering for their property, which was based on zoning which limited height to four floors. My point is these people went to court, eventually all the way to the High Court of Australia where that court ruled in their favor five zip. As was explained by one of the property owners on an ABC report. But our State government Labor as it happens changed the NSW Law to permit the local council to take their property and hand it over to GROCON. Several years ago a community group fought the proposed re-development of unused rail yards near Auburn Clyde to a waste compaction plant for the cities garbage to be packed and shipped to Lithgow by train. The day those ratepayers won in the Land and Environment Court. Premier Bob Carr came out onto the steps of NSW Parliament and told the waiting journalist. I don’t care what the land and environment court have ruled we (the government) will simply legislate to permit it. In my opinion he demonstrated a contempt for our laws that day in step with the actions of men in another time and place who went on to become dictators! When voters realize we have the power to choose a path which will return honest open representative government to the peoples, by voting dead wood politicians right out of parliament and into the street where they belong. Not onto the opporsition benched for expencive taxpayer funded RnR
    Edward James 0243419140

  9. Liz45

    Hi Blair – Must have been a magic time for Pete’s Dad! Another fair dinkum pastor/minister etc? Now I know two!!!

    The vote in Qld last night was very definite wasn’t it? I bet the extreme rightwing thought that the world would end, but the weather was as usual for Qld at this time of the year? The sun was shining for several hours that I watched/listened the cricket – 1st Test Match? Strange isn’t it? The haters are so emphatic of how evil a path some of the States have decided to travel, you’d think the world would end!

    There was a great article in Sunday’s Sun Herald (NSW) where a young rugby player and his female fiance have decided, that they will not marry until a gay and lesbian couple can! Aren’t they a lovely pair? He’s from Zimbabwe and has a strong feeling re social justice!

    Today some of the senior people in the ALP Ministry were posing the question – ‘why should we spend so much time on an issue that is not a priority for average Australians’? I screamed at the radio several times – ‘unless you’re a gay or lesbian couple who love each other, or are family members or friends.

    What difference will it make to heterosexuals if same sex couples marry? I just don’t understand their hysteria over this issue – it just doesn’t make any sense, but then hatred, fear and bigotry never does!

    It will happen one day Blair – just hang in there. Your supporters are growing in number! I feel optimistic, particularly about the attitude of young people. Unlike some who whinge about them all the time, I think the overwhelming majority are aware people who act responsibly and have a good sense of justice!

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