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Time For Labor To Bind On Marriage Equality

Buoyed by growing momentum for marriage equality, Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek is leading the charge for her party to put its money where its mouth is by making support for this reform binding.

While some in Labor’s right flank might resent being forced to toe the line, ultimately the ALP only stands to gain should it finally show some backbone on this human rights issue.

In 2011, the Labor party amended its policy platform to recognise marriage equality, yet adopted the bizarre half-way house of an opt-out clause by way of a conscience vote.

Collectivism and the notion of the binding caucus is fundamental to Labor party tradition and practice. Whatever members’ objections to the policies of their party, there is an expectation that they will ultimately toe the party line … except it seems when it comes to gay rights.

It is a cruel irony indeed that a party that binds its members on locking innocent children in immigration detention, for instance, refuses to bind them on granting loving couples the right to marry. Surely in 21st century Australia, the rights of same-sex attracted people shouldn’t be dismissed as some “luxury opt-in” item and homophobia should not be considered grounds for conscientious objection.

In the fight against discrimination, there can be no half-way house.

Electorally, Labor’s position is equally nonsensical. Support for marriage equality in Australia has continued to build in recent years – so much so that the tidal wave is surely unstoppable. Seventy-two per cent of Australians now support the reform, while a mere 21 per cent are opposed. Few policy issues enjoy such electoral support.

In many ways, the fight for marriage equality has become a defining human rights struggle. It now occupies a unique space in Australian culture – a powerful emblem for progressivism and one of the final frontiers in the battle against homophobia.

Despite the avalanche of public support for reform, the Parliament remains in stalemate. In Tony Abbott, Australia has a Prime Minister who is not for turning on this issue. Held hostage by their leader’s recalcitrance, the Liberals seem unlikely to grant their members a conscience vote any time soon.

Here Labor has an opportunity to seize the moment and showcase its contrasting vision for Australia. Should Labor adopt a binding position, this would open up the genuine prospect that for the first time a change in government would finally deliver marriage equality for Australia. A genuine chance to make history.

This is a powerful story to tell. It is one that has the potential to electrify Labor’s base – particularly in the inner cities, where it continues to lose ground to the Greens.

The conservative wing of the Labor party will no doubt argue such an approach spells electoral ruin for their party. But here they might like to consider their current predicament. Labor’s 2011 conference fix created little more than a policy fig leaf. While opponents of marriage equality might be aggrieved by it, it’s not enforceable – robbing the many party members and activists who are in favour of the reform the capacity to actually campaign on it. A unique “policy fix” indeed that results in a lose/lose scenario!

Bill Shorten promised 2015 would be “a year of ideas” for Labor. Marriage equality is an idea that’s time has well and truly come. He should support his deputy and run with it.

This piece was first published on April 27, 2015, on ABC Opinion - The Drum.