Twelve years after Labor declined to block John Howard’s changes to the Marriage Act banning same-sex marriage, there are few remaining in the federal party who oppose marriage equality, after the shock departure of Joe Bullock.

The year 2004 is a year many in Labor would like to forget. Mark Latham was their leader, and the party supported then-prime minister John Howard’s push to add a clause to the Marriage Act to ban same-sex marriage. Although the Labor Party officially opposed same-sex marriage, Howard was attempting to wedge the party on the issue, and hastily attempted to pass legislation. The first bill was referred to committee in the Senate, but Labor opposed it in parts. Then-attorney-general Philip Ruddock then introduced a second piece of legislation removing Labor’s sticking points to try to get it passed quickly. Labor was all for it. Latham at the time:

“We have always said that we believe the Marriage Act is an institution for a man and a woman, and we’ve never proposed in the Labor Party to change that. So we will be supporting what really is the formalisation of it — they’re writing from the common law now into the statute law that it’s an institution for a man and a woman.”

Those who remain opposed to same-sex marriage insinuate that there was unanimous support for Howard’s Marriage Act changes. There wasn’t. Labor’s vote was never officially recorded in the House of Representatives because it was passed on the voices. In the Senate, Labor voted with the government of the day, 38 votes to six, to pass the legislation. The Greens and the Democrats were on the record as opposed.

The comments of some Labor senators during the debate on the legislation at the time — including Labor’s Jacinta Collins, who still opposes same-sex marriage — echoes the current comments of far-right conservatives like Cory Bernardi:

“I know that some people probably take too seriously — some would counter-argue far too seriously — events such as the gay Mardi Gras. But, if the homosexual community wants to portray itself in ways other than how homophobes assume it to be, we need some care and attention.

“That was highlighted in Melbourne recently with what some of the gay literature was doing in relation to one of Melbourne’s high schools and the suggestion that perhaps it was encouraging paedophilia. Care and attention need to be applied on both sides when we are talking about accusations over whether people are homophobic, or whether they just have common, good-sense differences in policy or perspective.”

At the time Labor pledged to remove discriminatory legislation against same-sex couples, including on superannuation, but the party platform still prevented any policy that would “mimic marriage”. In 2008, the Rudd Labor government made the changes to discriminatory legislation, but the ban on same-sex marriage still remained an issue within the party. The “mimic” line was removed from the party platform, but no wording on advocating same-sex marriage was put in its place. At the time Anthony Albanese, in a line that sums up how those inside Labor worked to change policy on LGBTI rights, said: “You can’t always get what you want.”

Supporters like Albanese, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong, along with Labor’s LGBTI group Rainbow Labor, were working hard internally to change party policy against same-sex marriage. MPs who were believed to be in support of gay marriage were often forced to defend the party’s opposition to it. This lengthy explanation from Wong in 2010 on Q&A to why she was silent on the ban shows the struggle she was dealing with at the time:

“I accept that you and some other people in the community would like us to have a different position in terms of marriage. That isn’t the position in the party, but what I would say to you is do take a moment to consider what we have tried to do, what we have advocated for and what we have delivered for gay and lesbian Australians.”

At the 2011 national conference, there was a motion that would have resulted in a complete reversal of the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage, to complete and binding support. In order to avoid undermining her leadership, however, there was a motion put up on behalf of then prime minister Julia Gillard to allow MPs a conscience vote on the matter. Gillard’s opposition to same-sex marriage became a symbol of her struggles as leader — the same ones Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull faces today: she was bound by the deals that got her into the Lodge.

Gillard eventually voiced support for gay marriage after she left office. Slowly but surely over the years since the 2011 change in policy, Labor MPs have also begun changing their positions. In his brief return as prime minister, Kevin Rudd was in support, and Labor leader Bill Shorten also stated his support early.

Rainbow Labor co-convenor Kieran Fitzgerald told Crikey there was “incremental but important progress” on turning the tide on same-sex marriage within Labor. Rainbow Labor spent much of its time convincing MPs, particularly those in marginal electorates with large migrant populations, that a support for marriage equality would not cost them their seats.

Then in 2014, Joe Bullock happened. In the WA Senate election re-run, sitting senator Louise Pratt was placed second on the ticket behind hard-right SDA member Bullock. He actively campaigned against Pratt on the grounds of her sexuality and what she represented for Labor. Bullock, an anomaly in Labor’s shift on same-sex marriage, used his opening speech to voice his  opposition to same-sex marriage.

At Labor’s national conference last year, Rainbow Labor again pushed to bind party members to vote for same-sex marriage immediately. As Crikey reported at the time, they almost had it locked in, until Shorten at the last minute reached a compromised proposal to only bind members from 2019. Many saw the move as a victory for the right, but it meant that MPs such as Bullock would need to consider their future in the party.

Bullock said after the 2015 conference he had walked away “shocked, alone, and in deep despond”. Although he will remain a Labor member, he said he could not ask people to vote for a party that would deny a conscience vote on “homosexual marriage”. Bullock retires as one of the few remaining Labor members opposed to same-sex marriage. According to Australians for Marriage Equality there are five Labor MPs (Tony Zappia, Anthony Byrne, Chris Hayes, Michelle Rowland, and Maria Vamvakinou) and six senators (Deborah O’Neill, Chris Ketter, Alex Gallacher, Helen Polley, Stephen Conroy, and Jacinta Collins) who have not declared support for marriage equality, but four of these have indicated privately that they will vote for marriage equality when it comes before Parliament.

Bullock’s expected replacement, Pat Dodson, is also believed to be in favour of same-sex marriage.

Shorten and Labor are capitalising on former gay rights hero Turnbull’s recent capitulation to the likes of Bernardi in his party for holding a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, and conducting a review into the Safe Schools Coalition. After Shorten labelled Bernardi a homophobe, Bernardi whinged in the Senate that it was Shorten’s “Mark Latham moment”, when in actuality it was another step away from the Latham legacy.

Rainbow Labor will march in Mardi Gras this weekend with the Labor leader marching alongside them for the very first time. Labor has also co-signed legislation for marriage equality and promised to introduce legislation for marriage equality if elected this year. The float will be on the theme of Gough Whitlam’s old “It’s Time” slogan.