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.

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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.