Saturday, December 3, 2011

What just happened? The political game that was the ALP gay marriage vote.

The Labor Party of Australia just changed their party platform to allow same-sex marriage. The exact wording of the motion was;

“Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all couples irrespective of sex who have a mutual commitment to a shared life. These amendments should ensure that nothing in the marriage act imposes an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage.”

An amendment was passed to this motion allowing Labor party parliamentary members a conscience vote on this issue. This was passed by 208 to 184 votes.

The amended motion was then put to the floor and passed without a counting of specific votes. Clearly the ayes had it.

All of this is being presented as democracy in motion; however, the exact outcome is so precisely what Labor would want to do strategically that I have my doubts it wasn’t planned to turn out exactly this way.

Same sex marriage has always been a difficult issue for Labor electorally. More so than any other party their voting base is divided on this issue. As momentum for change has grown, Labor’s “do nothing” stance has lost it voters to the Greens. Party strategists however have been concerned that supporting change will lose it more votes to the Coalition.

To allay that concern advocates of change have pointed to the polls which indicate consistently a majority of support for gay marriage in almost every sector of the community. However those polls miss the point. Although most people support gay marriage, Labor party strategists fear that supporters include only a few who would change their vote over the issue. Opponents of gay marriage however may be more likely to vote accordingly. This is the difference between soft and hard support. While hard support (which decides voting intention) is growing amongst supporters of same-sex marriage, soft support is probably still much larger amongst potential Labor voters. Hard supporters of same-sex marriage may have long ago left for the Greens. Some would come back if Labor supported gay marriage unequivocally but many wouldn’t for other reasons.

Meanwhile opponents of gay marriage are almost always motivated by religious conviction. This tends to lead to hard support (although like any personal politic that gets drawn in different directions by the party system). If more opponents than supporters of gay marriage let this issue decide their vote Labor could be following the majority of people on this issue and still pay a penalty electorally.

Further complicating matters is that particular feature of the lower house – the electorate. Seats in the lower house are won and lost on votes in a particular geographical area. The impact on votes of gay marriage is very different in different areas. So the Labor party candidate in a rural Queensland seat faces a higher risk of losing their seat if they support gay marriage while an inner city Melbourne candidate will probably lose their seat if they don’t. Remember even if a majority of people in an area support gay marriage the issue (for the party) is how much hard support and opposition there is amongst potential Labor voters in their electorate.

The absolute perfect political solution to these problems would be to bring the party platform into line with the majority opinion but without running afoul of the hard opposition to change. This would be enough for the soft supporters of Gay marriage who want to vote Labor. Further it will stymie the flow of votes being lost over the issue. So long as Labor can present itself as generally supportive of gay marriage even if it is unable to change legislation (that darn obstructionist opposition!) the Greens will have a hard time using this issue to draw votes to themselves. The Greens can’t say they are the only party (with an electoral chance) to support gay marriage any more. They need to use much more complex language to differentiate their party on this issue. At election time complexity is not rewarded.

The conscience vote amendment allows candidates to loudly or quietly support or distance themselves from the party line if it is useful in their seats. Candidates had previously done this by stating their support for gay marriage in conflict with the then party platform. They were never going to be sanctioned for this when to do otherwise would have been political suicide in suburbs like Brunswick or Glebe. Similarly the party won’t mind a member who votes against gay marriage in line with hard opposition in their electorate. In fact with a leader who is on record as saying she doesn’t support gay marriage it is going to be a very safe environment for such transgression if it can even be called that. 

It is important that, for this strategy to work, people who need to differentiate themselves from the party line be able to do so publicly and heroically. Having a count of votes on the amendment does that. It is also helpful that the party adopt the change to their platform without forcing all those supporting it to be visible. This was achieved by not having a counted vote on that. All in all Labor achieved exactly what it might need to neutralise this as an election negative for them while capturing the positives from it.

There are risks to this strategy. It’s unsure exactly how it will play out once a same-sex marriage bill is actually made law or rejected. It’s possible that the conscience vote will be forgotten should the bill pass and the opponents of same sex marriage will punish the party who broadly supported it. Alternatively if gay marriage is blocked its supporters might move from soft to hard just by the issue having been given a higher profile. No one really remembers a party’s official platform over their policy achievements so Labor could expect to lose some votes from such an outcome. I imagine the party hacks will be trying to figure out if it’s best to introduce a bill after the next election or before. It’s hard to see how Labor can keep this issue on a backburner for much longer though given its growing representation and support.

The Liberal party face far less significant challenges in regard to this issue. The Howard years have purged the party of many supporters of gay marriage. Obviously the hardest supporters couldn’t stay in the fold when Howard passed his Defence of Marriage bill. There’s not much more to lose by keeping that line and while there might be votes to gain by changing, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Still when polls show the majority of people are in support of gay marriage this is not an issue the Liberal party will want to emphasise at a general election. To do so would ensure the soft support from the majority hardens into something threatening. This means they need to control their angry conservatives. We can expect one Liberal message for the general public and another playing to communities where same-sex marriage is opposed. The first will say that this same-sex marriage debate isn’t important, the second will emphasise the need to vote in regard to this matter.

The Liberals need to decide whether their party will allow a conscience vote on any bill that comes before the house and whether they will revisit the issue (if it passes) should they gain government. Regardless of ideology, electoral strategy will play a big part in these decisions. Just making a call I’d say they’ll decide “no” to both.

A Liberal sinking of the gay marriage bill is too disruptive to the governments agenda to not tempt Abbott to impose a binding vote. It will leave the ALP with open divisions and forces them to make another decision on the issue; Do they resubmit the bill triggering a double dissolution and having an election on this issue? Although the Liberals don’t want to make the election about same-sex marriage they won’t be upset if Labor does. They can be completely on message that this is an unimportant issue, an obsession for the government when other matters are more pressing. When Labor doesn’t resubmit the bill it will disappoint its strongest same-sex marriage supporting members.

Only if Abbott is going to be publicly defied by high profile members would he allow a conscience vote. Abbotts control is weak and he can’t afford to expose that. Allowing a conscience vote would definitely be preferably to having one anyway against his will.

It would be complete madness for the Liberals to promise to repeal same-sex marriage after an election. Any promise of this sort would need to be downplayed to the general public while amped up in the anti-gay marriage pockets with a failure to control that being disastrous. The majority of people have soft support for gay marriage and the Liberals need to tell them this issue doesn’t matter. Revisiting the issue will be, according to the Liberals own message, a spiteful further waste of time.

Mind you anything is possible. Abbott is not the shrewdest political operator and often speaks before consultation with wiser party members. The ALP themselves have made mistakes but under Gillard they work together better and as a team they are a lot more careful than Abbott. They are always planning the next election.

Saying there is a tactical sensibleness to the outcome of the ALP conference doesn’t mean that there aren’t people of integrity making what they believe is the right call – on all sides of this debate. There were 184 delegates who rejected the amendment to allow a conscience vote despite this reducing Labor’s political flexibility. However let’s not kid ourselves that democracy ran riot here either. The outcome of the ALP conference was so tactically perfect that I suspect this was a debate that was permitted to happen because its outcome could be foreseen.
That’s politics.


  1. A very insightful blog that just avoids being too "conspiracy theory"ish. It will be interesting to see when the bill gets put forward and how both parties respond.

  2. Thanks Simon, I've read that a private members bill is expected next year. Also Ive heard that about 10 government members are expected to vote against a bill at the moment. There could be specific concerns though that an ammendment would cover though I can't see what that would be.
    (Does the last line of the motion alleviate your own concerns by the way?)
    All this means that if Liberals vote as a block then next years bill is not passing. Some liberals will cross the floor no matter what Abbott decides but probably not enough to pass the bill.
    I don't want to suggest nothing was gained with the conference vote however. ALP supporters of same sex marriage are now no longer as obligated to justify their position as opponents. Before the platform change this was the other way round.