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.

Peter Fray

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