The ALP’s 46th National Conference has decided to allow a conscience vote on gay marriage, with delegates voting 208 to 184 to permit conservative MPs to discriminate against same sex couples.

A separate amendment to Labor’s platform proposed by Andrew Barr and Penny Wong to explicity recognise same sex tie-ups was carried on the voices. However, that victory is purely symbolic — when a bill on the issue is introduced next year the Coalition will team with ALP Groupers to shoot it down.

The outcome is a sweet one for the national right,who feared the leader’s credibility would be trashed by an open show of defiance. At one point it seemed the PM had been defeated on the voices, however a vote was quickly called for.

Last night, the PM granted delegates a free vote on the issue, despite socially conservative union leader Joe de Bruyn’s attempts to keep his faction voting as a bloc. The National Union of Workers’ seven Victorian delegates had pledged to vote as group against the conscience vote.

The outcome suggests the Left, with 177 delegates, held firm but that the Right, excluding the NUW, ‘binded’ to back the leader. Yesterday, the voting method, involving tellers counting delegates’ raised voting cards from a distance was called in to question when the left appeared to have snagged more votes than their numbers suggested.

Speeches on both sides of the debate were some of the most fiery seen in recent times at the usual tranquilised conference, with frequent heckling, interjections and thunderous applause.

Moving her amendment, the Prime Minster attempted to keep the debate’s tenor civil, calling for a “climate of respect” as the issue gets thrashed out.

“The issue we are about to debate speaks to people in a deeply personal way,” she said.

Seconding the PM’s amendment, Defence Minister Stephen Smith agreed that although a conscience vote was unusual, it was the best way to deal with the debate.

“The best way forward for us is to accord a conscience vote to enable delegates to deal with this issue so everyone with a view is accorded civility and dignity and respect which is tantamount to reflecting the modern Australia, a mature, tolerant Australia,” Smith said.

Moving the platform change on behalf of Rainbow Labor, an emotional Barr said that same sex Australians deserved equality “that’s not only functional and practical but also highly symbolic.”

“This is about dignity,” he said.

His address was met with a rousing standing ovation.

Wong said if her party discrimnated on any other measure, there would not be a person at the conference that would countenance it.

“I say to those that oppose change, there is nothing to fear from equality,” she said.

Opposing a platform change but supporting a conscience vote, de Bruyn was mocked by observers and activists, when he opened by proclaiming the party should use its head, rather than its heart to deal with the debate.

Marriage between a man and a woman had “always been this way since the dawn of humanity in any society and every civilisation.”

De Bruyn cited an Australian Christian Lobby survey that purported to show that voters in marginal electorates may abandon Labor if it changed its platform.

“When middle Australia looks at the images,” of protests surrounding at the conference, de Bruyn said, “they will say ‘that’s not us'”.

Labor Left legend John Faulkner said the issue was one of simple equality.

“It is not for government to to grant human rights but to recognise and protect them.”

“We will rise to the great traditions of our party, the party of reform, the party of inclusion”, Faulkner said, calling on delegates to erase “the limitations and bigotry of the last century.”

Faulkner said that voting in parliament to send young soldiers to war was not subject to a conscience vote and that the gay marriage debate didn’t fit.

“I take the view that a conscience vote on human rights is not conscionable.”

Senator Mark Arbib layed down the Right’s official line, supporting both a conscience vote and the Barr-Wong amendment.

“Views inside the party and inside the community are deeply held and they differ,” Arbib said.

He claimed Faulkner had previously supported conscience votes on a “case by case” basis for issues that intersect with religion.

Left parliamentary leader Anthony Albanese stumped for his faction, calling on the conscience vote to be shot down.

“By giving people rights they have been denied you do not take away rights for other members of the community.

“Let’s have faith in ourselves.”

Tanya Plibersek said she wanted to say to same-sex youth struggling with their identities community “you are just fine.”

“Almost equal is not good enough.”

However, for the moment at least, equality will hve to remain just out of reach.

Below is the text of the successful amendment to the party platform moved by Barr and Wong. Below that is the Prime Minister’s amendment to allow for a conscience vote.

101A – Marriage Equality Proposed Andrew Barr Penny Wong

Further Support Joe de Bruyn, John Faulkner, Deborah O’Neill, Michelle Lancey

Amendment 101A

Chapter: 9 – A fair go for all Australians
Paragraph: 118, 119, 120,
Page Number: 155
Mover: Andrew Barr
Seconder: Penny Wong
Amendment Text:
Amend heading between 114 and 115 by deleting words “against same sex couples”

Delete paragraphs 118, 119, 120 and replace with:

118 Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples irrespective of sex who have a mutual commitment to a shared life.

119 These amendments should ensure that nothing in the Marriage Act imposes an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage.

Original Paragraph 118, 119, 120:

Labor will take action to ensure the development of a nationally consistent framework that provides:

the opportunity for all couples who have a mutual commitment to a shared life to have their relationship officially recognised

equal rights for all couples in Federal and State laws.


Labor will review relationship recognition arrangements to ensure national consistency.


These reforms are to be implemented consistently with Labor’s commitment to maintaining the definition of marriage as currently set out in the Marriage Act.


515A – Same sex marriage debate Proposed Julia Gillard Stephen Smith

9. Same Sex Marriage (decision of the 2011 Conference)
Conference resolves that the matter of same sex marriage can be freely debated at any State or federal forum of the Australian Labor Party, but any decision reached is not binding on any member of the Party.

Original Paragraph 9

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