The Labor conference vote on gay marriage
“Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” — Joe Hill, IWW agitator, in a letter to Bill Hayward not long before his execution in 1915 on a framed up murder charge.
The outcome of the Labor Party national conference on gay marriage reform will no doubt bring a chorus of moaning from the far left about the Labor Party. John Passant of Socialist Alternative was quick to lead off the chorus:
“The party that screws over gays and lesbians and refugees and fears the views of its own members, most of whom are part of the 99 per cent, will screw over workers as workers for the 1 per cent.
“And tomorrow, guess what? They will vote to sell uranium to India.
“Labor’s conference is a con — the ALP remains a right-wing party, a party of neoliberalism.”
This was on the day left and democratic forces in the Labor Party won an important victory, changing the Labor Party’s platform to support gay marriage.
It’s true the right won a rearguard action to make the issue a conscience vote for MPs, so the battle is not over. Various media sources were quick to point out that will mean gay marriage reform will most likely be defeated in the present parliament.
But that’s not the end of the story. Abortion law reform, for example, was the result of a long struggle, in which the right and religious elements had to be beaten back, step by step, over many years of determined organising and agitation.
Even today, the result on abortion is a stalemate in most Australian states. It’s decriminalised, and has been for decades, but still not legal, and religious fanatics sometimes try to re-establish their right to impose their views of conception and contraception on everyone.
The next focus for the gay marriage debate will be private members’ bills in the federal parliament, in which the Liberals will be under pressure to match the Labor Party in allowing a conscience vote. These bills will provide opportunities to further advance campaigns for greater democracy and tolerance.
All along, Senator Doug Cameron and the Labor left have been arguing that questions of equality are not a conscience issue, and that’s undeniable. The women’s movement argued that about abortion for many years, but the issue was in the end settled by conscience votes in most states.
In big social battles, that’s often the outcome. Even in the battle over conscription for the Vietnam war the eventual outcome, a resounding victory for the antiwar forces, was that the Whitlam government quietly shelved conscription in such a way that it could be brought back in a different social situation.
Since then, imperial military strategy has changed and conscript armies are no longer regarded as reliable in view of the Vietnam experience.
The conscience vote was the most that could be won on the floor of the Labor Party conference yesterday, further organisation will be necessary to take the matter further.
Labor’s policy change is in no way an act of leadership. It merely records how much social attitudes have change in response to many years of campaigning by the gay movement and its democratic allies, which have emboldened more and more gay people to assert their rights.
That’s so much the case that most large workplaces these days have openly gay and lesbian people, and ignorance and fear have been driven back by familiarity.
Anyone who expects leadership from the Labor Party will be waiting a long time. Labor policy usually confines itself to reflecting changes that have already taken place and struggles that have already been won.
Labor Party members are another matter, many participate in struggles for real social change, and when they do so in sufficient numbers they are a powerful force. Even more so if some of the party’s leaders commit themselves, as Arthur Calwell did against the Vietnam war and Mark Latham did against the Iraq war.
Battles fought in society at large usually rage in the Labor Party as well, and this conference decision registers that.
The task now is not to moan about Labor betrayals, it’s to find the best ways to take the next steps towards real victory, building on the important step taken yesterday by the Labor Party.