Federal

Nov 8, 2010

Backing gay marriage won’t fix Labor’s identity crisis — but it’s a start

Drifting to the Left on social issues won't help Labor solve its fundamental problems. But it might jog the party's corporate memory about what it should do with power.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Mark Arbib is to be commended for pushing for a change within the party on gay marriage, but it won't help address Labor's basic problems about what it stands for and its inability to deliver reform. Nonetheless, it might help the party, and Arbib himself, reacquaint -- or possibly acquaint -- themselves with the idea of political leadership, even if on a small scale. However eminently sensible, gay marriage isn't much of a vote changer either way. Labor's loss of votes to the Greens won't be halted by a more rational position than "marriage is between a man and a woman". Conversely, people reactionary enough to feel gay marriage is a harbinger of the Apocalypse are unlikely to be voting Labor now -- or, probably, even Liberal. Family First has to get its votes from somewhere, after all. It does run the risk that Paul Keating continually ran with his republic and reconciliation agenda -- spend more than five minutes talking about such issues and you're charged by the commentariat with being distracted from 'the real priorities of Australians', as though we're incapable as a society of thinking about more than one thing at a time (such a charge will most likely be aimed at the government's announcement today about recognition of indigenous peoples in the constitution). It will also expose divisions between conservatives with Labor ranks who oppose change and non-conservatives who don't see the point in pursuing the issue, and those who want the party to support gay marriage. Then again, John Howard didn't suffer too much from letting Liberal divisions over social issues be aired, even when he was on the losing side on conscience votes. And Gillard-era Labor is supposed to be an altogether feistier model than the quiescent party of the Rudd era -- symbolised not just by an inactive Caucus but a party conference so pre-planned and uncontroversial Rudd didn't even bother attending most of it. Drifting to the Left on a few social issues won't address Labor's core problem that it is unclear at senior levels exactly what its purpose in political life is beyond being in power, why it must "reform" and in whose interests it does it. This doesn't mean economic policy must trump all else. Paul Keating's economic views only ever formed part of a broader world view that included issues like engagement with Asia and a reconciliation with our colonial past. His strategic view of Labor's overall purpose for being in government was by no means uncontested within the party, but it was exponentially more complex and coherent than anything currently on offer, especially with Labor appearing reactive to the agendas of other parties, whether it's the Greens on climate change or Joe Hockey on the banks. Nonetheless, Arbib's stance is to be welcomed, if only because in a party that has forgotten how to prosecute reform, and maybe even forgotten how to debate divisive issues in favour of presenting an homogeneous government devoid of internal conflict of any kind, having an argument about a principle might jog the institutional memory of Labor about the point of being in power. Who knows -- if Arbib can convince his party to support gay marriage and then obtain wider parliamentary and community support for it, he might learn a thing or two about how to prosecute reform in other areas where the political stakes are a lot higher.

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9 comments

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9 thoughts on “Backing gay marriage won’t fix Labor’s identity crisis — but it’s a start

  1. John

    Totally agree with Bernard.

  2. CHRISTOPHER DUNNE

    Here’s your chance Labor, stand up and fight for something.

    Anything.

    (But at least this cause will drag us into the 21st century and away from the medieval world view of the ossified minority.)

  3. klewso

    After his earlier machinations, I suppose it goes without saying, this great (“red herring”/search for relevance?) idea came from a “fucus” group brain storming?
    So it’s passed those first seven stages on “The Karl Mark’s – Acceptapolicy Meter”?

  4. Colin Jacobs

    Was this a case of Arbib trying to shake things up, or – as someone opined to me – a calculated exercise in showing the left that there are still people with principle in the ALP right? After all, nothing will change until 2012 at least.

  5. zut alors

    Bernard, I have to disagree on the point that ‘…gay marriage isn’t much of a vote changer…’

    A significant percentage of our population is homosexual and it would be an outstanding social reform from their point of view. I believe any government would be rewarded if they passed such legislation.

  6. JamesG

    If Labor pretending to be progressive to regain votes from the Greens is what it takes to get marriage equality in Australia then so be it. It is to Julia Gillard’s deep shame that she professes to be a small “l” liberal (“look at moi, my chief of staff is a lesbian!”) but like the ETS doesn’t actually possess the bottle to prosecute reform.

  7. Fascinated

    Nothing will change on gay marriage and the ALP policy unless probably a special party conference is called before the set piece 2012 Conference – April 2011 would be sensible before the new Senate forms. Julia, Penny and Mark cant be expected to break the rules but the rules (and quite a few of them) can be changed.

  8. Davo

    Who cares what that mediocre pile of nothing, Mark Arbib, thinks? He might as well say he believes in wealth redistribution, a socialist government and world peace. Since he has no ideology, consistent world view, ethical standards or even intelligence, why give this turd any media space. Roll on the election. Can we remove both the ALP and the Libs?

  9. klewso

    Arbib, to me, brings to mind a rat looking for drain-pipe!

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