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Victoria

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.

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 comments

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

  1. John

    Labor can only allow a conscience vote if the Liberals and the Nationals also allow a conscience vote.
    It is time for Liberal Party MPs and senators to demand of Tony Abbott their right to a conscience vote on this issue.

  2. 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.

  3. Liz45

    It’s only a ‘convention’ the issue of marriage rights. Conventions can be changed and have been changed. Same sex marriage is a human rights issue. How can Australia protest that we uphold human rights, except? The argument against same sex marriage is weak. No heterosexual couple will be disadvantaged by this – that is a nonsense. We have rights for same sex couples to adopt children – they’ve been allowed to foster children for years. So it’s legal to raise children together, but not to be married? How would heterosexual couples feel if this nonsense law applied to them?

    It’s time we grew up! Some people in the Labor Party probably joined when the death penalty was legal – thankfully, we changed that. There are many injustices that have been overturned even in the last 4 decades. I’m waiting for so-called committed christians to start behaving that way – not just provide lip service!

    What part of ‘racial discrimination’ law was changed via a conscience vote? That’s most disturbing as is most of the references you’ve made? ‘Family Law’? Really? What parts? The 1967 changes to the Constitution was via a Referendum – perhaps that’s what we should have? How about advocating that, or improving the Constitution even further re indigenous people, who aren’t even mentioned at this time – except in the Flora and Fauna section? How disgusting!

  4. Steven McKiernan

    “These people who are making a big deal out of gay marriage? I don’t give a fuck about who wants to get married to anybody else! Why not?! We’re making a big deal out of things we shouldn’t be making a deal out of. They go on and on with all this bullshit about ‘sanctity’ — don’t give me that sanctity crap! Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want.” Clint Eastwood vs Davo the Feeney.

  5. Bondles

    If the ALP stands on this issue as a party happy to let its representatives vote in favour of continued discrimination, then history will judge them — and they’ll probably have sacrificed their last chance to win back progressive voters and activists from the Greens. That’s the bed the ALP’s made and I’m happy for them to lie in it; I just wish that my friends in loving and committed relationships weren’t standing in the crossfire.

  6. Modus Ponens

    Feeney only supports a conscience vote because he knows it is doomed to fail and his conservative views can be upheld.

    If this article was genuine and not a chimera, it would be titled ‘why I am pushing for the Labor party to change its platform and vote for same-s*x marriage.’

    This is just a cover to try and retain the last senate spot in Victoria against the Greens in 2013….

  7. 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.

  8. paddy

    ROTFL It’s always a hoot, when the comments are saner (and better written) than the original piece.

  9. Reuben

    @Blair Martin

    Well said sir.

  10. SusieQ

    Well said Blair Martin and Bondles, you are so right. Even though I am ‘straight’ and therefore can marry who I wish if I want to, this issue is one of the reasons I have stopped voting Labour and now vote Green.
    As for Feeney being Catholic, all well and good, but seriously, what moral superiority can the Church claim on anything these days, after its appalling record on child abuse?

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