Social Democracy in Focus, Issue 7

July 28, 2015


28 July 2015

Matters of conscience

Anyone who has sat through a senior school politics class knows about the concept of party discipline. Parliamentarians are required to vote in accordance with the position of their party. They can “cross the floor” to vote against their Party, with personal consequences. Then there are matters, often matters of deep moral significance, on which parties allow members a vote according to their own moral, political, religious or social beliefs.

The Labor Party has historically bound members of its caucus on all but a small handful of matters. It has been a strong enforcer of party discipline. The decision at the 2015 ALP Conference to permit a conscience vote on same sex marriage has been chalked up by the Party as a win. But is it?

At the Party’s 2011 Conference a commitment to marriage equality was adopted. This was momentous: Party members were, up to this point, bound to vote against any amendment to the Marriage Act which provided that marriage could be between members of the same sex. However in 2011, the Conference also resolved 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.”

So in other words, the ALP has had a conscience vote on same sex marriage since 2011. Members of parliament will continue to have their conscience vote until 2019, after which they will be bound to vote in favour of same sex marriage.

Shorten is looking to wedge Abbott on the conscience issue. However it is by no means clear that having a conscience vote on the government side would, together with the ALP conscience vote, garner the numbers necessary for a change. This is one of the arguments made by groups like Rainbow Labor in arguing for a binding vote. On the other hand, a binding vote in the House of Representatives as currently configured will not provide the numbers either. Where it will make the outcome far more clear is in the case of an ALP majority after the election, a result which current polling suggests is likely.

A number of media articles have reported on the emotion with which Penny Wong delivered her speech on Sunday, and the standing ovation she received. But social democrats should listen to what she said, reflecting on the 2011 Conference:  don’t think I’ve had a prouder day as a member of the Labor Party and I will be prouder still when we deliver marriage equality in law. This is the ALP’s ultimate test on marriage equality.

The national conversation we’re not having

For an issue that is complex, multi-faceted and global in its implications, you would have thought that our national conversation on this topic would have evolved and matured over time. But instead, it has degenerated into simplistic slogans, “stop the boats”, which is now “turn back the boats”.

What we need is a rational, open and honest national conversation on this topic. But given the ALP’s announcement at the National Conference that they will follow the Coalition’s turn back policy, we have perhaps missed the opportunity to open this discussion. That both parties now have this at the core of their policies gives the impression that this is the only solution, or that it is good policy.

Australia’s thinking on asylum seekers largely focuses on the short-term and fails to grasp the scale of the issue.  The number of people on the move around the world is rising every year, and we have probably reached the point where the problem has outgrown the capacity of domestic governments, acting alone and in an ad hoc manner, to adequately cope with it.

Several aspects of Labor’s plan shows signs of moving in the direction of addressing this. Increasing our humanitarian intake to 27,000 (almost double the current intake), increasing funding to the UNHCR, and taking a leadership role in developing a better regional framework are positive steps.

We have to understand that we can’t just draw a line around Australia, turn boats back and put people on islands for years on end and pretend it will all just go away.  Apart from the human cost, from a sheer practical point of view, it costs many billions of dollars, entails high levels of government secrecy, and sucks up too much political energy and focus.

Unfortunately, when it comes to this issue, we too often see politics at its worst. Certainly any attempt by Labor to dramatically change policy would be immediately exploited by the Coalition as showing weakness on border control. But it would be good to get the point where we can call out this facile “weak vs strong” distinction, and see a bit of leadership by initiating an open, mature national conversation about the facts and the sheer scale of this problem.  As with any problem, the more minds working on it, the more ideas feeding into it, the better will be the solution.  We need some genuine policy alternatives, some long-term thinking, and some perspective on this issue in order for us to stop our national fixation on the hordes at gate.

The Poor Cousin

Party reform was the poor cousin last weekend.  At Labor’s triennial family get-together, party reform was the issue none of the big players wanted to get stuck in the corner with. The sole exception was incoming President, Mark Butler, whose clarion call around the need for changes to Labor’s culture and rules, went largely unheeded.  For months, pressure groups such as Open Labor and Local Labor had mounted campaigns to convince the party leadership to increase members’ voice in preselections for lower house and allow them a voice in Senate preselections for the first time.  Open Labor collected over 1,300 signatures on a petition in support of these changes, including a host of former Premiers and Federal ministers.

It was all to no avail.  Member participation in preselections remained unchanged; the only change saw members’ receive a greater representation at the next National Conference.  This was because factional leaders have no reason to give up power; they distrust the rank-and-file base and don’t see why they should cede influence to them.

This view prioritises short-term polling prospects over long-term viability. As has been said many times before, if Labor can’t draw committed new supporters, both as members and voters, it’s hard to see how it lifts its primary vote out of the low-to-mid 30s.

The Shining Light

In some ways, the story of Labor’s national conference was a lack of ambition, displayed through an unwillingness to position too far from its opponents, particularly on asylum seekers and same-sex marriage.

On one issue, though, Labor did take a stand. Its position on climate change is arguably the most distinctive, ambitious policy to emerge from the party under Bill Shorten’s leadership. By embracing a goal of 50% renewables in our energy mix by 2030, it more than doubles the existing bipartisan goal of 23% and puts considerable distance between itself and the Government on an issue whose importance only continues to grow.

By the next election, Labor needs to have carved out policies of similar distinction on 3-4 more key issues. But out of a conference that sought not to rock the boat (no pun intended), climate change was a sole shining light.