ALP national conference & where to now for marriage equality

I attended ALP national conference and some fringe events on marriage equality plus the Sydney rally. I had conversations with politicians and delegates attending national conference, and I've been able to ask lots of questions and put together more pieces in the puzzle of how we get marriage equality to become law.

I'm not a politican or expert, but I have put together a summary of what I've learnt. I've made it fairly basic to answer questions that people ask me:

Basic politics 101:
  • Australia has three levels of government - local (Council), state and federal.
  • The Marriage Act is regulated by the federal government.
  • A proposed law is called a Bill and is introduced into Parliament where it is debated before being voted on.  
  • For the federal government to approve a law it must first pass a majority vote by the 150 MP's in the Lower House (House of Representatives). Then it must pass a majority vote of Senators in the Upper House (the Senate). This process often takes a number of months.
  • Once a Bill is passed, legal matters are dealt with before the Bill becomes an "Act" and becomes law. This process may take a number of months. 
  • Tas, Vic NSW, ACT and Qld (in early 2012) have Civil Unions. As this is state law, civil unions are invalid outside that particular state, plus couples in civil unions do not get the federal government entitlements of marriage - e.g. an Australian man marrying a woman from another country is allowed immigration rights for his bride (a federal govt responsibility), yet an Aussie (straight or gay) in a civil union can not gain automatic immigration rights for their non-resident spouse.

How do political parties work: 
  • When a politician joins a political party they are bound by the party "platform" (the party policies). 
  • Generally members of a political party must vote according to party platform, this is called a binding party vote.
  • A conscience vote is when MP's are not bound by party platform and can vote according to their own conscience. 
  • The Australian Labor Party (ALP) will eject an MP from the party if they do not vote according to their party platform.
  • The Coalition (comprising both Liberal and National parties) does not eject MP's who vote against party platform, but this may be a career limiting move.
  • If an MP votes against their Party platform this is called "crossing the floor".
  • An Independent MP has no party platform to conform to, so can vote however they like on any issue.
  • The ALP is made up of different factions - the Left supports marriage equality and the Right opposes (though a growing number of the Right do support).

ALP National Conference:
  • ALP national conference is held every 2 years to determine future ALP platform.
  • National conference was due to be held in 2012, but was brought forward to Dec 2011 to deal with same sex marriage.
  • ALP members select 400 delegates for national conference and these 400 get to vote on changing party platform.
  • The next national conference is likely to be in 2014.

What happened at the December 2011 National Conference:
  • To be guaranteed of winning marriage equality in 2012, two new party platforms needed to be introduced by majority vote of the 400 delegates.
  • Firstly, that ALP platform endorses same sex marriage (this was passed)
  • Secondly, that any vote on marriage equality is a Binding Party Vote - meaning all ALP MP's must vote according to the platform (this failed to pass - vote was 208 to 185). 
  • Had the majority of delegates voted that any future vote on marriage equality must be a Binding Party Vote, this would almost certainly guarantee same sex marriage would have passed in 2012 
  • ALP now officially supports same sex marriage, but any vote on marriage will be a conscience vote, meaning MP's are not bound by party platform to vote supporting marriage equality.
  • Currently the ALP does not have the numbers for marriage equality to pass on a conscience vote.
  • I was surprised by the strength of support within the ALP - this clip shows the support, especially at 1:20 mins when Joe de Bruyn is put in his place
  • Inside the conference, speakers for marriage equality got amazing standing ovations from hundreds of people. Opponents of equality got two standing ovations - one from TWO people, another from THREE people (how embarrassing).

So what has been achieved so far:
  • For the first time ever a major political party now officially supports same sex marriage. Once it looked like we wouldn't have enough support for the platform to be changed to allow even a national civil unions scheme, but now we have achieved full marriage in the platform. This is a big achievement and not many other countries have achieved this.
  • Only a couple of years ago few MP's would publicly speak out in support, now there are many - all in a short space of time. (I put this down to people telling their personal stories of marriage discrimination to their friends, family and most importantly to their MP's, plus effective lobbying by groups like Australian Marriage Equality and others)
  • The level of support at ALP national conference was stronger than expected - the vote to change platform was passed "on the voices" meaning it was not so close that a count of hands was required.
  • Even the vote on a Conscience vote was very close (208 to 185) with more delegates voting Yes than were expected. This is a huge growth in support. With only 12 more delegates convinced to change their vote, this would have passed. Put this into perspective - 12 more votes = a mere 3% of delegates.

Where to from here:
  • If a Bill for same sex marriage was put forward now, this would be expected to fail.
  • For a Bill to pass the Lower House we need 76 MP's to vote yes. Though the numbers are growing, we do not yet have the required 76.
  • Coalition Leader Tony Abbott says he will not allow Coalition MP's to have a conscience vote on marriage equality.
  • Our lobbying has seen a big increase in MP's supporting marriage equality - from now on we need to increase the pressure on MP's, and get even more MP's on side.
  • Australian Marriage Equality and GetUp are developing new campaigns to be released early in 2012 - it's essential that even more people participate in these campaigns.
  • The best outcome would be for lobbying to result in: 1- even more ALP MP's voting yes, 2- Tony Abbot allowing Coaltion MP's to have a conscience vote, and 3- even more Coalition MP's prepared to vote yes.
  • If Tony Abbot does not allow his MP's a conscience vote, a campaign aim could possibly be to increase the number of Coalition MP's who would cross the floor to vote yes.
  • It's possible the Bill may have to be presented numerous times before it has the numbers to get passed - the big question is, will this happen before the Federal election in 2013??
  • Polls suggest the ALP is likely to lose power to the Coalition at the 2013 election. This will be a bad thing for marriage equality (and all LGBT issues). It will be harder to obtain enough votes for marriage equality to pass under a Coalition govt. 
  • If we can not persuade enough Coalition MP's to vote yes, it is entirely possible not to have marriage equality for some years yet.
  • The next ALP national conference is in 2014. With further lobbying, it's entirely possible to get a further 3% of delegates to vote to amend ALP platform so that a vote on same sex marriage is a Binding Party Vote. This would greatly increase the chances of a Bill passing, with all ALP MP's voting yes.

What can we all do?

by Phil Browne
December 2011