clear conscience? what a conscience vote means for australian marriage equality
Deputy Leader for the Opposition, Tanya Plibersek, introduced a private members’ bill last Tuesday morning aimed at legalising gay marriage in Australia. This bill was an effort designed to pressure Prime Minister Tony Abbott into deciding on whether Government MPs will be allowed a conscience vote.
A conscience vote (or free vote) is where legislators in a legislative body are allowed to vote according to their own personal consciences and beliefs, rather than according to an official line set down by the party. Conscience votes are usually quite rare, and are often on issues that are very contentious, or when several members of the same party disagree on a certain issue. Usually, a conscience vote will be about religious, ethical or moral issues, rather than ones to do with finances or administration. Some examples of issues that are put to parties by a conscience vote are alcohol prohibition, legality of prostitution, abortion, and, indeed, homosexual law reform.
The draft legislation put forth by Plibersek to the Caucus is said to be practically the same as the private members bill the then government MP, Stephen Jones, proposed to the last government in 2012. This bill overwhelmingly failed, with 26 Labor senators in favour and 41 against. The failure of this bill in 2012 was described as a disappointing failure of the government to remove discrimination.
Plibersek has sought to have the bill introduced early in the year, however it will be up to the Government, which has the numbers, to bring on any parliamentary debate.
‘Marriage equality’s time has well and truly come,’ Plibersek said in a statement. ‘The proposal for this bill follows the High Court’s confirmation that “marriage” in the Australian Constitution includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.’
If a conscience vote were to be called, the results would be interesting to study, as recently more government MPs have publicly declared their support for marriage equality, but have felt bound by the party’s position. The new bill certainly has the potential to spark a fresh round of debate within the Coalition.
Prime Minister Abbott holds a long-standing and public opposition to any changes to the Marriage Act. However, he has left open the prospect of allowing his MPs a free vote pending a debate, which is now more likely as a result of this bill.
In recent months, the debate over marriage equality has led to heated tensions between some conservatives and some moderates within the government. Liberal Senator and leading conservative, Cory Bernardi has called on former Liberal leader and current Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to quit publicly advocating gay marriage or quit the ministry.
‘If Malcolm Turnbull wants to talk about fringe issues outside party policy, he should resign from the frontbench,’ Bernardi told the ABC in December last year. ‘Our longstanding party policy is that marriage is between a man and a woman. Our frontbenchers need to reflect that in any comments they make. When you are a frontbencher there is no room for a personal view.’
Turnbull has called for the Coalition to allow a conscience vote on the issue, which he has stated he would ‘certainly’ vote for. The Labor Party have asked Turnbull to co-sponsor the private members bill to legalise marriage equality, but the offer was rebuffed as Turnbull is a Cabinet Minister.
Leader for the Opposition, Bill Shorten has denied that the Labor Party is playing politics by trying to refocus attention on internal differences within the Coalition. Shorten has stated that it is ‘remarkable’ that the Liberal Party, which prides itself on giving MPs a free vote, insists on ‘binding’ its members when it comes to marriage equality. Shorten has also issued a challenge to Prime Minister Abbott to let the entire Parliament vote according to their individual beliefs.
The Greens will co-sponsor Plibersek’s bill, but are warning Labor against ‘rushing’ in a second bill only to have it defeated before a consensus can be reached in Parliament.