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Dec 5, 2011

Do the Liberals have a conscience on gay marriage?

The media narrative is overwhelmingly obsessed with Labor's position on the same-s-x marriage issue and the Coalition's much larger anti-gay contingent has mostly been given a free pass.

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So Labor got its platform change, as expected, on same-sex marriage, but the fundamentalists got their conscience vote. Assuming a solid Coalition vote against change — an assumption that has gone largely unchallenged — that means legislation to change the marriage laws would be doomed in the present Parliament.

But there has been, finally, a little scrutiny of the Coalition’s position. With its own battle out of the way, several senior Labor figures have been needling the opposition on its failure to embrace a conscience vote. Now Simon Birmingham, Liberal senator from South Australia, has urged his party to pay heed, saying that he would support a same-sex marriage bill if given the opportunity.

It remains the case, however, that the media narrative is overwhelmingly obsessed with Labor’s position on the issue and that the Coalition’s much larger anti-gay contingent has mostly been given a free pass.

That’s symptomatic of a wider problem. The debate on party reform is another instance; Labor gets plenty of publicity for its internal difficulties, with some very effective media scrutiny of reform options and the institutional obstacles that they face. Hardly anyone ever mentions that the Liberal Party has a very similar set of problems and faces broadly similar options in addressing them, with equally strong forces of inertia standing in the way.

Part of the reason is that journalists and academic experts tend to come from the left, so the Labor Party is much more familiar to them: few of them feel qualified to say much about the internal workings of the Liberal Party, and on the occasions that they try they often get things laughably wrong. The ALP is also in part a victim of its own (relative) openness; its internal disputes are more on display, whereas the Liberals do a better job of keeping things behind closed doors.

Another reason is that the Liberals are currently seen to be in the ascendant, winning state elections and ahead in the polls federally, so the assumption is made that their problems must be less serious — although the truth is that internal strength and external performance are very weakly correlated at best.

Scrutiny for the Liberals is badly needed; just last week, when Queensland’s Parliament passed legislation for civil unions, Labor MPs had a free vote but the merged Liberal National Party voted unanimously against. Only one independent joined the majority of the Labor caucus to ensure passage of the bill, 47-40.

When they’re trying to sound conciliatory, the fundamentalists maintain that they don’t want to discriminate, that they just want to reserve the name “marriage” for heterosexuals but that gays are welcome to have all the substantive rights they need via civil unions. But when put to the test, it turns out they really don’t like civil unions either.

Yet we know from the polls that same-sex marriage has significant support among Liberal voters. While there is no serious doubt that Tony Abbott will succeed in imposing a party-line vote against it, it will involve suppressing a good deal of contrary opinion in the branches and in the party room.

Abbott’s response to the call was to point out that “There’s a sense in which every vote in the Liberal Party is a conscience vote”. He’s right, in that crossing the floor on the issue would not in itself be grounds for expelling a Liberal MP. But in substance, it’s less true than ever.

Where once the party had an assortment of “rebels” and people who were willing to put principle ahead of their careers, that species is now almost extinct. Party discipline is in practice almost indistinguishable from what prevails in the ALP.

This simply reinforces the point that Labor and the Liberals face very similar problems. Both parties have become conformist, hierarchical organisations: decisions are made at the top, the MPs do what they’re told in order to get ahead, and the ordinary members (the few that are left) turn up obediently to hand out how-to-vote cards but do little else.

The threat to our democracy doesn’t come from conscience votes or from same-sex marriage, it comes from political parties that have ceased to function as representative organisations, and from media that have failed to call them to account for it.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson has contributed to Crikey since 2002, and was a ministerial adviser in the Kennett government and a former editorial manager at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

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28 thoughts on “Do the Liberals have a conscience on gay marriage?

  1. James Guest

    Charles, I hope you are not as much more up to date on the internal state of affairs amongst Liberal MPs than I am as you ought to be for your purposes as a member of the commentariat. I was disappointed at your making only passing mention of one of the most important differences between the major parties for those considering to belong to one or the other, namely the absolute right of a Liberal MP to cross the floor if his or her conscience dictates (or he or she is willing to say convincingly that it does). It is not even true that retribution at preselection is likely. Why? (And you could provide these reasons yourself).

    1. In a marginal seat a diligent member who has been cultivating even a modest local following will be valued by the party hardheads enough to save him or her. The marginal seat holder might even argue that crossing the floor was important to holding the seat though there are other possiblities.
    2. In a safe seat the party won’t be worried about MPs’ eccentricities losing the seat though evidence of behaviour seriously at odds with the leadership (assuming it is in favour for the time being) and embarrassing to it can get a member into trouble. It happened to me on immigration matters many years ago but, in the opinion of some of the hardheads, actually helped me hold the seat which many had not realised had become losable. (The leader I was seen to contradict or implicitly criticise on nationwide news actually apologised not long after for any adverse effect he might have had on my vote in my seat. That was an illustration of the truth you would have observed that it is a politician’s fervent supporters who are normally most passionate and uncompromising, not the politician him or her self – though some are good, usually selective, haters or believers in making sure they are feared).

    Amongst those I can remember crossing the floor when in government and in opposition in Victoria were Geeffrey Connard, Denis Napthine, Bruce Skeggs, Jeffrey Kennett and myself. No doubt I have forgotten plenty. I don’t remember any threats of retribution. The usual technique of the leaders (remembering that Whips in state parliaments are a pale shadow of the Westminster version) was and no doubt is to acknowledge the right of conscience but to try and argue that the issue in question isn’t really one on which one could find an issue of conscience. Thus my threat to cross the floor on an anti-tobacco advertising bill when we were in opposition, which I was willing to do if the government would make a particular amendment, was argued against – amiably enough – on the ground that, surely, I couldn’t regard it as a conscience issue.

    I am sure that doesn’t tell you anything very surprising or cause you to revise your memories but you now seem to say that things have changed. Evidence?

    Is it any more likely today compared with past decades that an ambitious MP will avoid defying the leader’s preference for a solid front for the ultimate reason of conscience that it will stop that very superior MP’s ability getting a position on the front bench to the great advantage of the country? Joking aside, weren’t some people unwilling to jeopardise their preferment when Kennett, or Greiner was Premier, or Fraser PM and in that you can include preferment in retirement too? Under John Howard Petro Georgiou’s case can be used to support more than one emphasis in analysing the question you raise. One thing is sure: his stands against Howard and Howard government policies didn’t threaten loss of his seat, or even, until maybe he could be regarded as and admirable yesterday’s man in a safe seat, his pre-selection.

    So, what has changed? Perhaps you perceive a problem (and it would be a problem if Liberal MPs no longer had an automatic “conscience vote” whenever they decided to exercise the right) because not voting for “marriage” for same sex couples with many foreseen and unforeseen consequences and corollaries, to start as soon as possible, is hardly likely to offend a conscience gravely. Maybe if the effect of it would be to ensure it never happened it would be. For those who think “equality” is an unproblematic concept and doesn’t raise factual or practical difficulties and for whom it is central to their moral and political being, well, yes, it could be said that the right to have the Family Court sort out one’s differences should be accorded equally to same sex couples as a major priority, and even that, because some conventionally married couples have some unjustified claims on the taxpayer nearly all same sex couples should have the same…. But that doesn’t get you anywhere near saying that Liberal MPs who are inclined to favour providing for same-sex marriage should think it an important conscience issue. [By the way, given that I am sure you won’t have overlooked the money questions involved, isn’t this a middle class issue, even an upper middle class issue, given that a married couple’s OA pensions are lower than those of a single pensioner?]

  2. Davies Ben


    No no they are more interested in running drugs working with the CIA and destroying the outback way of life. Herion used to be the biggest killer in this country now as they have handed our more credit cards they are selling cocaine…

  3. Davies Ben


    Being a racist and white supremacist is more popular as you understand the Chinese Communist Murdoch Media…

  4. Charles Richardson

    Thanks everyone for the comments. Some very quick thoughts:

    @Michael/Manin: I’m confident Turnbull would vote for same-sex marriage if there was a conscience vote, but I doubt he’d cross the floor – the whole “disloyalty” thing would count against him (however unfairly) in any future leadership ballot.

    @Gavin: That’s possible, but it strikes me that Labor just gets more attention even when it’s not particularly critical – I think greater familiarity is a part of it. But certainly sections of the media have a strong anti-Labor agenda that may also be a factor.

    @Peter: Labor’s problem is that it can’t really afford to be kicking anyone out at the moment; it needs every vote it can get. But in the long run, yes, the party would probably be better off if it completed the split and evicted the NCC remnants. And certainly the shop assistants would get better value for their membership dollar if they changed union leadership.

    @Sean: That’s a really interesting question, which I’m sorry I didn’t have space to go into. Basically I don’t think there’s a chance that enough Liberals would cross the floor to make the difference; if there were a conscience vote, however, the numbers could be very close. The overseas experience seems to be that once it’s seen as inevitable, opposition melts away very quickly, so it’ll be interesting to see if that happens here.

    @Zut/LJG: We don’t really know either way. My guess is that it would change very few votes, since those who care most about it are already committed to their respective sides, but you never know.

    @Venise: Depends how you look at it. I’d say Abbott has a very strong conscience; it just tells him to do things that I (and you, I’m guessing) find morally repugnant.

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