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Dec 5, 2011

Do the Liberals have a conscience on gay marriage?

The media narrative is overwhelmingly obsessed with Labor's position on the same-s-x marriage issue and the Coalition's much larger anti-gay contingent has mostly been given a free pass.


So Labor got its platform change, as expected, on same-sex marriage, but the fundamentalists got their conscience vote. Assuming a solid Coalition vote against change — an assumption that has gone largely unchallenged — that means legislation to change the marriage laws would be doomed in the present Parliament.

But there has been, finally, a little scrutiny of the Coalition’s position. With its own battle out of the way, several senior Labor figures have been needling the opposition on its failure to embrace a conscience vote. Now Simon Birmingham, Liberal senator from South Australia, has urged his party to pay heed, saying that he would support a same-sex marriage bill if given the opportunity.

It remains the case, however, that the media narrative is overwhelmingly obsessed with Labor’s position on the issue and that the Coalition’s much larger anti-gay contingent has mostly been given a free pass.

That’s symptomatic of a wider problem. The debate on party reform is another instance; Labor gets plenty of publicity for its internal difficulties, with some very effective media scrutiny of reform options and the institutional obstacles that they face. Hardly anyone ever mentions that the Liberal Party has a very similar set of problems and faces broadly similar options in addressing them, with equally strong forces of inertia standing in the way.

Part of the reason is that journalists and academic experts tend to come from the left, so the Labor Party is much more familiar to them: few of them feel qualified to say much about the internal workings of the Liberal Party, and on the occasions that they try they often get things laughably wrong. The ALP is also in part a victim of its own (relative) openness; its internal disputes are more on display, whereas the Liberals do a better job of keeping things behind closed doors.

Another reason is that the Liberals are currently seen to be in the ascendant, winning state elections and ahead in the polls federally, so the assumption is made that their problems must be less serious — although the truth is that internal strength and external performance are very weakly correlated at best.

Scrutiny for the Liberals is badly needed; just last week, when Queensland’s Parliament passed legislation for civil unions, Labor MPs had a free vote but the merged Liberal National Party voted unanimously against. Only one independent joined the majority of the Labor caucus to ensure passage of the bill, 47-40.

When they’re trying to sound conciliatory, the fundamentalists maintain that they don’t want to discriminate, that they just want to reserve the name “marriage” for heterosexuals but that gays are welcome to have all the substantive rights they need via civil unions. But when put to the test, it turns out they really don’t like civil unions either.

Yet we know from the polls that same-sex marriage has significant support among Liberal voters. While there is no serious doubt that Tony Abbott will succeed in imposing a party-line vote against it, it will involve suppressing a good deal of contrary opinion in the branches and in the party room.

Abbott’s response to the call was to point out that “There’s a sense in which every vote in the Liberal Party is a conscience vote”. He’s right, in that crossing the floor on the issue would not in itself be grounds for expelling a Liberal MP. But in substance, it’s less true than ever.

Where once the party had an assortment of “rebels” and people who were willing to put principle ahead of their careers, that species is now almost extinct. Party discipline is in practice almost indistinguishable from what prevails in the ALP.

This simply reinforces the point that Labor and the Liberals face very similar problems. Both parties have become conformist, hierarchical organisations: decisions are made at the top, the MPs do what they’re told in order to get ahead, and the ordinary members (the few that are left) turn up obediently to hand out how-to-vote cards but do little else.

The threat to our democracy doesn’t come from conscience votes or from same-sex marriage, it comes from political parties that have ceased to function as representative organisations, and from media that have failed to call them to account for it.


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28 thoughts on “Do the Liberals have a conscience on gay marriage?

  1. michael r james

    Surely there is one (l)iberal in a very (l)iberal electorate that would vote for same-gender marriage? First name Malcolm.

  2. Maninmelbourne

    …and maybe Malcolm would like to make some waves and grab some publicity by floating the idea of crossing the floor on this one?

  3. Caris Young

    I guess everyone has an achilles heel, even the good ones.

  4. Gavin Moodie

    I think that more justification is needed for the suggestion that part of the reason for the media scrutinising Labor party positions more than Coalition party positions ‘is that journalists and academic experts tend to come from the left . . .’ Another possible explanation is that while many commentators may have originated from the left, most are now right wing and so criticise Labor more than the Coalition.

  5. drmick

    The media have got what they deserve. They bought rugby league and r**ted it and they “shaped” politics and they have r**ted that. They trade on the respect and tradition of the past while trashing everything in their path including the law, ethics morals and beliefs. The gormless & witless punter only has the choice of which media medium, (70% owned by one media source), to pay, to provide the “entertainment”. Don`t need a conscience for that especially when talking about “politicians”.

  6. Peter Evans

    Zero chance of a “conscience” vote from the conservatives. You know Pell has already been on the phone to Abbott invoking the ghost of Santamaria.

    Kick the Shoppies out of the ALP. If I was in that union I would be livid with it’s gormless, disgusting, grouper leadership, and looking to set up an alternate organisation.

  7. James Guest

    Charles, I hope you are not as much more up to date on the internal state of affairs amongst Liberal MPs than I am as you ought to be for your purposes as a member of the commentariat. I was disappointed at your making only passing mention of one of the most important differences between the major parties for those considering to belong to one or the other, namely the absolute right of a Liberal MP to cross the floor if his or her conscience dictates (or he or she is willing to say convincingly that it does). It is not even true that retribution at preselection is likely. Why? (And you could provide these reasons yourself).

    1. In a marginal seat a diligent member who has been cultivating even a modest local following will be valued by the party hardheads enough to save him or her. The marginal seat holder might even argue that crossing the floor was important to holding the seat though there are other possiblities.
    2. In a safe seat the party won’t be worried about MPs’ eccentricities losing the seat though evidence of behaviour seriously at odds with the leadership (assuming it is in favour for the time being) and embarrassing to it can get a member into trouble. It happened to me on immigration matters many years ago but, in the opinion of some of the hardheads, actually helped me hold the seat which many had not realised had become losable. (The leader I was seen to contradict or implicitly criticise on nationwide news actually apologised not long after for any adverse effect he might have had on my vote in my seat. That was an illustration of the truth you would have observed that it is a politician’s fervent supporters who are normally most passionate and uncompromising, not the politician him or her self – though some are good, usually selective, haters or believers in making sure they are feared).

    Amongst those I can remember crossing the floor when in government and in opposition in Victoria were Geeffrey Connard, Denis Napthine, Bruce Skeggs, Jeffrey Kennett and myself. No doubt I have forgotten plenty. I don’t remember any threats of retribution. The usual technique of the leaders (remembering that Whips in state parliaments are a pale shadow of the Westminster version) was and no doubt is to acknowledge the right of conscience but to try and argue that the issue in question isn’t really one on which one could find an issue of conscience. Thus my threat to cross the floor on an anti-tobacco advertising bill when we were in opposition, which I was willing to do if the government would make a particular amendment, was argued against – amiably enough – on the ground that, surely, I couldn’t regard it as a conscience issue.

    I am sure that doesn’t tell you anything very surprising or cause you to revise your memories but you now seem to say that things have changed. Evidence?

    Is it any more likely today compared with past decades that an ambitious MP will avoid defying the leader’s preference for a solid front for the ultimate reason of conscience that it will stop that very superior MP’s ability getting a position on the front bench to the great advantage of the country? Joking aside, weren’t some people unwilling to jeopardise their preferment when Kennett, or Greiner was Premier, or Fraser PM and in that you can include preferment in retirement too? Under John Howard Petro Georgiou’s case can be used to support more than one emphasis in analysing the question you raise. One thing is sure: his stands against Howard and Howard government policies didn’t threaten loss of his seat, or even, until maybe he could be regarded as and admirable yesterday’s man in a safe seat, his pre-selection.

    So, what has changed? Perhaps you perceive a problem (and it would be a problem if Liberal MPs no longer had an automatic “conscience vote” whenever they decided to exercise the right) because not voting for “marriage” for same sex couples with many foreseen and unforeseen consequences and corollaries, to start as soon as possible, is hardly likely to offend a conscience gravely. Maybe if the effect of it would be to ensure it never happened it would be. For those who think “equality” is an unproblematic concept and doesn’t raise factual or practical difficulties and for whom it is central to their moral and political being, well, yes, it could be said that the right to have the Family Court sort out one’s differences should be accorded equally to same sex couples as a major priority, and even that, because some conventionally married couples have some unjustified claims on the taxpayer nearly all same sex couples should have the same…. But that doesn’t get you anywhere near saying that Liberal MPs who are inclined to favour providing for same-sex marriage should think it an important conscience issue. [By the way, given that I am sure you won’t have overlooked the money questions involved, isn’t this a middle class issue, even an upper middle class issue, given that a married couple’s OA pensions are lower than those of a single pensioner?]

  8. Jim Reiher

    I doubt the Libs will allow a conscience vote. If they did… heck… gay marriage might actually pass! You really think Mr Abbott will tolerate that??

    And if a brave handful of Liberals cross the floor and it still fails, they will survive the crossing. But imagine if they cross the floor and it passes! They might not be expelled from the party, but lets see who doesn’t get preselected next election!

  9. Davies Ben


    No no they are more interested in running drugs working with the CIA and destroying the outback way of life. Herion used to be the biggest killer in this country now as they have handed our more credit cards they are selling cocaine…

  10. Sean Doyle

    I wonder how many “no” votes there are in the federal ALP? I think that under a conscience vote by both majors, SSM has a better than average chance of passing. How many rebels would be needed from the Coalition to sway it? They’ve already lost Slipper at least.

    Also, it’s still going to be a fair while until the legislation is put up for a vote. While the Coalition is far ahead at the moment, the gap could shrink by the time of the vote. At the moment, while the Coalition is leading the polls, Abbott himself is about as unpopular as Gillard. Also, it’s difficult to accept that everyone in the Coalition, especially the half minus one that voted against Abbott in 2009, is tickled pink with the policy direction [sic] and negativity of the Coalition. The only thing Abbott has to offer these people is a chance of sitting on the government benches in a couple of years. If even that starts evaporating, his no conscience vote stance is going to be very difficult to sustain. He’ll either have to yield or suffer significant numbers of defections, the level of embarrassment over which would only be exacerbated if the rebels get SSM over the line against Abbott’s opposition.

  11. zut alors

    I would’ve thought same sex marriage was a vote-winner. A figure often bandied about (but impossible to verify) is that ten percent of the population is homosexual.

    Assuming the majority of that ten percent want equal rights, I fail to understand why the ambitious Gillard isn’t pro SSM – especially if Abbott has Pell stitching him up on progressive policy. It would be terrific to see Turnbull cross the floor again. What has he got to lose?… only an uncomfortable communications portfolio which he doesn’t want.

  12. Davies Ben


    Being a racist and white supremacist is more popular as you understand the Chinese Communist Murdoch Media…

  13. LJG..............

    Zut Alors – I think the problem is that same sex marriage isn’t a vote winner – even amongst the gay community. I think many people still vote on hip pocket issues regardless of their sexuality – I know at least one catholic church attending liberal voting openly gay person and I don’t quite understand it but for him his Telstra shares are far more important thank you very much!

  14. Gavin Moodie

    I agree with LJG. Same sex marriage is more likely to change the votes of the minority who are strongly opposed than those of the majority who mildly support.

  15. Edward James

    Our Prime Minister has an unmarried bit on the side. How would that work if the Prime Minister was Penny Wong? Edward James . Good politicians friend.

  16. Liz45

    @EDWARD JAMES – Good question Edward?

    As to those asking whether SSM is a vote winner? It all depends how much it would mean to you personally. It could be the ‘clincher’ or perhaps the main issue to some. There were lots of people and their families and friends rallying on Saturday? That must say something. I think those people with kids or who’d like to have kids would value it pretty highly – just by what I see and hear from gays, lesbians and other relevant people.

    I left the ALP over Hawke’s announcement in ’83 or’ 84 re another uranium mine – other people obviously weren’t as passionate over this issue as I was. The vote re Uranium to India would really p**s me off if I was still a member. If the ALP want more members, they’re not going about it in the right way. The environment, uranium, SSM, asylum seekers being jailed etc etc. They just don’t get it do they?

  17. Venise Alstergren

    Lurve the headline””Do the Liberals have a conscience on gay marriage?”

    CHARLES RICHARDSON: Run that past me again. Since when have the Liberals-especially under the aegis of Tony Rabit-had a conscience about anything? Conscience and Tony Abbott together are two mutually exclusive terms.

    PETER EVANS: It would be far more pragmatic to de-bar all the Catholics. Since when have the Catholic hierarchy, and the hard right-wing followers and politicians have had the moral right to dictate other people’s morals or behaviour. Hell, they can’t even punish all their priests who think small children are there to be buggered. The same priests who aren’t punished for their crimes-merely shifted to another diocese to re-commit the same behaviour. The Catholic church should cease pontificating about anything.

  18. Charles Richardson

    Thanks everyone for the comments. Some very quick thoughts:

    @Michael/Manin: I’m confident Turnbull would vote for same-sex marriage if there was a conscience vote, but I doubt he’d cross the floor – the whole “disloyalty” thing would count against him (however unfairly) in any future leadership ballot.

    @Gavin: That’s possible, but it strikes me that Labor just gets more attention even when it’s not particularly critical – I think greater familiarity is a part of it. But certainly sections of the media have a strong anti-Labor agenda that may also be a factor.

    @Peter: Labor’s problem is that it can’t really afford to be kicking anyone out at the moment; it needs every vote it can get. But in the long run, yes, the party would probably be better off if it completed the split and evicted the NCC remnants. And certainly the shop assistants would get better value for their membership dollar if they changed union leadership.

    @Sean: That’s a really interesting question, which I’m sorry I didn’t have space to go into. Basically I don’t think there’s a chance that enough Liberals would cross the floor to make the difference; if there were a conscience vote, however, the numbers could be very close. The overseas experience seems to be that once it’s seen as inevitable, opposition melts away very quickly, so it’ll be interesting to see if that happens here.

    @Zut/LJG: We don’t really know either way. My guess is that it would change very few votes, since those who care most about it are already committed to their respective sides, but you never know.

    @Venise: Depends how you look at it. I’d say Abbott has a very strong conscience; it just tells him to do things that I (and you, I’m guessing) find morally repugnant.

  19. Jillian Blackall

    @Charles: I think the Liberals need to get rid of the NCC section of the party as well and the NCC should all join the DLP. Then people could choose more directly whether they want to vote for that kind of conservatism.

  20. Maninmelbourne

    Turnbull is already putting it out that he wants a conscience vote. If Labor are clever and strategic (for once), they could really turn this to their advantage and use a conscience vote to squeeze the life out of Abbott. Big if, I concede.

  21. Peter Ormonde

    “The threat to our democracy doesn’t come from conscience votes or from same-sex marriage, it comes from political parties that have ceased to function as representative organisations, and from media that have failed to call them to account for it.”

    Excellent comment.

    But to be honest, I’m not sure political parties were ever designed to be “representative” – they are designed to appeal to a section of the electorate and to act in their interest. Governments can be more or less representative, but not parties.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that what has actually occurred over the lastfew decades is that this notion of a group in society having a common interest has disintegrated. The notion of a common interest has been deformed into the fragmented individuality of the “aspirational voter”, been contorted into the flimsy architecture of pollsters and ad men, of market research and focus groups. Parties now seek to become just another consumer good – like toothpaste.

    Buy me, buy me. I stand for everything. Now with added charisma. Interviews become another 30 second ad.

    The end of class. Not really. Just the end of political parties eventually. Class continues, one way or another. Common interests continue.

  22. Edward James

    @Peter Ormonde I also like the content of that last paragraph in the by line from Charles Richardson. It and your comment prompts me to write There are enough of us out here in voter land who are sick to the back teeth with the two parties not much preferred, refusing to engage with their constituents. Dont forget these two political parties and the rest of them can be identifed by their own standards as noisy minorities! Over the more than ten years I have been active in changing the face of politics locally I have begun to understand we the people do still have the power to shake the base of politics. Labor and the Liberal National Coalition at local state and federal levels ignore the voting public at their peril. I reccomend people exercise their voted by putting the political dead wood last on any ballot paper! Why would any tax and ratepayer let a non performing politician wander over to the opporsition benches for years of taxpayer funded RnR? Edward James good politicians friend. http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds Political attack ads published during the run up to Federal and State elections.

  23. Gavin Moodie

    @ James Guest

    Your comment seems to have been delayed by Crikey’s bloody moderation, unfortunately.

    A Crikey analyst (Keane?) recently reviewed floor crossing by federal Libs, including by Howard under previous leaders, to find them much reduced since Howard became Prime Minister.

    Federal Liberals’ retribution seems to be withholding front bench appointments, as Georgiou suffered and as Ciobo currently suffers apparently for not being a sufficiently strong supporter of Abbott.

  24. Venise Alstergren

    CHARLES RICHARDSON: Thank you for your answering me but I have to disagree with you on one or two points. The man is a recidivist liar and, being a staunch Catholic he is able to tell his God he’s only doing it for the common good. Almost all total believers in one God or another solemnly have the arrogance to think their God actually has the time to converse with them.

    Where this sort of thinking is appalling is when a Josef Mengele gets some power and tells himself (aka God) his experiments were all for the common good. Or the current Pope who tells God it’s better to retain evil priests who sodomise small children rather than submitting them to law courts of any given country…I keep forgetting the Pope is God’s representative on earth. He can do whatever he wants to do, and he doesn’t even have to answer to anyone. This includes sending these same priests to another diocese so that they can repeat their crimes all over again.
    Not even the words ‘morally repugnant’ can define these abuses.

    Anyway, back to the main event. The Liberal Party is stacked with Catholics so they won’t allow any kind of conscience vote to surface. Also, why do I have the feeling that Julia Gillard has, for once, walked into her own trap?

  25. Charles Richardson

    Sorry about the delays in moderation – not something I have any control over.

    @James: I think it’s indisputable that principled behavior by Liberal MPs has declined a good deal in the last decade or two. Why that is is a difficult question, but I think it’s largely the same cultural shift that has produced an ALP that’s totally captive to its apparatchik class. In other words it’s not so much that increased discipline is suppressing the conscience of individual MPs – although I think there’s an element of that – but that the system is now throwing up MPs who just don’t have such an active conscience in the first place.

    @Jillian: Well, yes, that would be ideal, but even for the NCC element to be confined to just one major party would be a step forward, instead of getting to run two.

    @Peter: Thanks, glad you liked it. The point isn’t that parties are supposed to be representative of the electorate at large, but I think they used to be at least broadly representative of their voter base, whether that base was defined by class, ideology, geography or whatever. The problem is that they now mostly represent only the interests of the people running them.

    @Edward: You’re right, the people are still powerful; they can do great things if they choose. We are still a democracy. But it needs organisation. Good luck.

  26. Liz45

    I think it’s been proven time and again, that the major parties only hold us in any sort of esteem just prior to an election. We’ve all heard them rant on about “the power of the people”, that they “trust the good sense of the Australian people’ blah blah, and then, guess what? For the next three years or so we’re treated like morons and treated like mushrooms. They also believe us so damaged that our memories have also died? Just because Abbott wants to believe that we have bad memories and so can suffer his lies doesn’t make it happen!

    We must keep in mind that if he hasn’t written it down, preferably in blood, his first priority is to be elected. He’s also said that he’d be willing (almost) to “sell his a**e”?

    I agree with Venise that Julia Gillard could’ve taken the wrong path on this issue! She’s doing a bit of fence sitting which is always an uncomfortable activity at best! She could end up with more than splinters!

  27. Venise Alstergren

    LIZ: I believe Gillard has an awful lot of fundamentalist Catholics in her electorate. This explains her intransigence on the issue. Do you believe SSM is a vote winner? I can’t see it on a rhetorical level.

    The English had their hereditary monarchy to uphold. The Americans had Free Enterprise and their insufferably superior superiority. The French had the Marseillaise. And the Australians had Same Sex Marriage as a rallying point? It lacks fire and passion.

    Allons enfants de la Patrie,
    Le Jour de gloire est arrive!
    Contra nous de la tyrannie,
    L’etendard sanglant est leve!
    Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
    Mugir ces feroces soldats?
    Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
    Engorger nos fils et nos compagnes!

    Aux armes, citoyens!
    Formez vos bataillons!
    Marchon! Marchons!
    Qu’un sang impur
    Abreuve nos sillions!

    You don’t need to understand a word of French to know these people had passion.
    Same Sex Marriage lacks that very point.

  28. Venise Alstergren

    MODERATOR: As eighty percent of my comment was written in French I fail to see how it could have incurred the wrath of the multi-talented machine.


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