Australian Labor Party (ALP) leader Bill Shorten’s proposed private member’s bill on marriage equality is not designed to win equal rights for same-sex couples – but to pre-empt an internal push to make the ALP’s official policy binding on its MPs. Whether or not it passes is inconsequential to Shorten, who only recently changed his “position”.
The opportunist manoeuvre aims to capitalise on Ireland’s recent referendum legalising equal marriage rights. It will also undercut a similar Greens bill, and is calculated to potentially push the Coalition into binding its MPs to an unpopular position – three in four Australians support marriage equality.
Currently the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) – a heavyweight player in internal ALP politics – is campaigning against Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek’s call for a vote on gay marriage to be “binding” on ALP MPs – like all other votes – rather than a “conscience vote”. Long-time SDA leader Joe de Bruyn recently said that “[m]arriage is between a man and a woman; always was, always will be”, a position totally at odds with the SDA’s predominantly young membership.
A so-called “conscience vote” allows ALP parliamentarians to vote against their party’s official position in favour of gay marriage. This allows the ALP to have a bet each way – stating on the one hand that they support marriage equality, while refusing to implement its official policy.
The SDA has been a bastion for conservatism since the anti-communist ‘grouper’ splits of the 1950s. Its weight within the ALP has grown as the influence of other unions has declined. The SDA’s membership of around 230,000 is largely the result of sweetheart deals with big employers like Coles and Woolworths, in which industrial quietude and low wages are traded for a grotesque caricature of a ‘closed-shop’. Employers automatically deduct union dues from employees’ wages, but at the same time also deduct a ‘service fee’ amounting to about $5 million a year.
Currently, 10 to 12 federal ALP MPs hold their seats due to direct SDA influence, but their power extends more broadly through various alliances. These deals even extended to support for ex-Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who ‘surprised’ many by not supporting gay marriage. Mark Latham described the ‘shoppies’ as “practic[ing] the worst of machine politics”.
Fairfax Media recently conducted a survey showing the level of support for marriage equality between ALP MPs had risen significantly since 2012, the last time parliament voted on the issue. Of the 55 current lower house ALP MPs 78% now claim to be in the yes camp. In the upper house it is 68%. Yet the majority of these MPs will not support a binding vote. For example, Senator Sterle, who also recently changed his “position” said “I won’t support a binding vote, but I am for marriage equality.”
That renders meaningless the support for gay marriage written into the ALP’s platform in 2011, following an outpouring of public pressure. It is but one example of how useless to the majority of people the ALP has become.
The fight for marriage equality cannot rely on ‘changing the hearts and minds’ of self-serving union and ALP careerists, or even making their vote binding. Such strategies cannot guarantee success because right-wing Laborites will potentially cross the floor and vote with anti-gay Coalition MPs.
The most effective way to win equality is to build a movement on the streets and in the workplaces that the establishment cannot ignore. This necessarily means concurrently fighting to democratise our unions, and setting up a political alternative to the ALP – a party opposed to capitalism’s system of ‘divide and rule’.
By W. van Leeuwen