Inside Story

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The Labor way

The Labor conference exposed the party’s – and the government’s – weaknesses, writes Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno 7 December 2011 2002 words

Protester supporting same-sex marriage at a rally in Sydney during the Labor Party conference. Kaptain Kobold/Flickr

IT IS probably unfair to judge a Labor Party prime minister’s address to national conference by its most incoherent passage: “This is the Labor way. This is the Australian way. We follow it simply because we are us.” But it sounded too much like the rejected first draft of a 1980s airline advertisement for journalists to let it through to the keeper. And with a dash of Arthur Calwell added for good measure. As the 1960s Labor leader used to say, “We are Labor because we are Australian and we are Australian because we are Labor.” Or was it the other way around?

While even friendly critics have criticised her speech as flat and uninspiring, the prime minister, on the whole, had a pretty good conference, capping off a year’s end that turned out brighter than she had any reason to believe would be the case even three months ago. Labor’s polling is still in the doldrums, but her own approval rating is improving. Her opponent’s, Tony Abbott, will be of continuing concern to the Coalition, as it ponders what to do with 2012.

Since Labor’s near defeat at the 2010 election, the prime minister has shown utter indifference to the cause of party reform and the specific proposals contained a review carried out by John Faulkner, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks. It may be that it’s hard to see the fundamental problems in a party when it has delivered you a highly successful career in politics and, eventually, the prime ministership. As Graham Richardson correctly pointed out in the Australian, Gillard may well have had a less easy run at this conference if a large part of it had been elected directly by party members. The kind of rhetoric heard from Doug Cameron might have been backed by numbers. The conference, for its part, rejected, postponed or watered down most of the review committee’s already released proposals. The rest of the report, the so-called sealed section, is being leaked selectively as part of the ongoing battle between the Gillard and Rudd camps. “This is the Labor way... We follow it simply because we are us.”

For most Australians, the idea that the national conference of a democratic political party should be constituted by the votes of its membership would be a relatively uncontroversial proposition. When they contemplate the creation of an Australian republic, for instance, most people favour direct election of the head of state. But from the point of view of the close oligarchy that runs the Australian Labor Party, the idea of direct election of national conference is poisonous. Oligarchies do not normally give up their power voluntarily. Wise heads, with long experience of the party and “the Labor way,” predicted very accurately what kind of reception the Faulkner-Carr-Bracks proposals would receive from the national conference.

Even direct election of part of the conference, which is all that has any prospect of making it through in my lifetime or yours, would upset the present cosy duopoly between the right and the left, underwritten as it is by a coterie of union officials who can at best claim to speak on behalf of less than 10 per cent of the workforce. Every up-and-comer with their eye on a parliamentary seat – and there were quite a few of those at national conference – would fear that their years of hard work cultivating this union boss and that factional operative would lead into a career dead-end called party democracy. Every present member would find their tenure just that little bit less secure, at a time when the polls suggest that, short of the most extraordinary turnaround in Australian political history, many of them will in any case be looking for alternative employment after the next election.

It is at this time of the year that the minute proportion of Australians who remain in the Labor Party are asked to renew their membership. In this respect, the timing of the national conference was possibly unfortunate. It endorsed a modest, but probably unattainable, recruitment target of 8000 new members. Many who already belong must be asking themselves whether they wish to remain any longer in what amounts to an abusive relationship. Apart from the warm inner glow of supporting a “great movement,” they receive very little in return for their annual fee. The “great movement,” for its part, has little need for their money and none at all for their participation in monthly branch meetings. The “great movement” to which Prime Minister Gillard referred in her speech is unable these days even to sustain an official newsletter or bulletin. There was a time when it owned daily papers and radio stations, and local branches fielded cricket teams.

THE conference has been predictably excoriated in the Australian for its endorsement of gay marriage. The journalists and experts concerned, of course, do not bother engaging with the issue itself but instead express their amazement that the party should be bothering with such a divisive and trivial matter when there are really more important things to worry about. Having tired of the clubs’ campaign against gambling reform, the Australian is now sooling church leaders onto what remains of the party. Grudging praise for conference's endorsement of uranium sales to India is accompanied by astonishment that the same party would then cancel out such wisdom by pandering to the interests of cosmopolitan elites on the other controversial policy issue that conference considered.

It is true that most Australians probably don’t lie awake at night worrying about gay marriage rights. But on this reasoning, Vincent Lingiari would still be waiting for Gough Whitlam to pour into his hands the soil of Gurindji country, as he did in that memorable gesture in 1975. Most Australians, I’d suggest, didn’t lie awake worrying about Gurindji land rights in 1975. Most Australians don’t lose sleep worrying about the disabled either, but the party conference endorsed a scheme of disability insurance on the grounds that it is good policy that will improve vulnerable people’s lives.

The Australian’s analysis of the conference decision on gay and lesbian marriage has been concerned largely with its effects on the Labor vote. That a very clear majority of Australians support same-sex marriage has not deterred the experts. They are certain that this is a big vote-loser out in the suburbs. It is unclear, however, why they believe this to be so. Their assumption seems derived from the notion that the kind of voter found in the mortgage belt has “traditional” values, and is moved only by “material” issues. Gay marriage is seen as part of a quality of life agenda and therefore outside their field of concern. A party seen to champion such an agenda is simply showing that it has been captured by an inner-city elite is out of touch with ordinary Australians.

This whole line of reasoning – to give it a flattering name – seems to me wrong-headed. Even at the crudest level of analysis, most heterosexual suburbanites are probably sensible enough to realise that the quality of life in their community, and probably their property prices as well, will go up rather than down once gays and lesbians move into their neighbourhood. Robert Reynolds pointed out in his book What Happened to Gay Life? (2007) that the old idea of a gay community centred on a particular inner-city precinct such as Oxford Street in Sydney was losing its meaning, as inner-city property prices went up and housing in such areas fell well outside what most gays could afford. Gays and lesbians, of course, have long lived in places other than the inner suburbs, but they are probably now a more visible presence in a greater variety of communities than ever before. To apply the “inner-city elites versus suburban battlers” cliché to this matter flies in the face of lived reality.

What is most striking to me about gay and lesbian marriage is how radically and completely an issue that was barely on the agenda even for most gays and lesbians a few years back has now moved to national centre-stage. As a historian, and a historian of Australian sexuality, this is for me the really big story. And it’s not simply a story about the influence exercised by highly motivated activists, although they have clearly played a role.

As Rodney Croome recently argued in the radical magazine Overland, the issue can be seen as part of the long history of marginalised Australians, including convicts and Aborigines, claiming the freedom to marry. It is also a critical step in the history of Australian homosexuality. Opponents of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the 1970s sometimes argued that it would lead to claims that gays should be enabled to marry. Their allegations were false at the time and primarily intended to scare off people who were cautiously sympathetic to homosexual men, since those advocating decriminalisation were not then claiming marriage rights. During that period of radicalism and libertarianism, many gays and lesbians saw marriage as an intrinsically oppressive institution, and they had little interest in creating a homosexual version of it.

In another sense, however, the opponents of decriminalisation were right: the claim that gays and lesbians should be able to live a “normal” life, that their relationships should be treated with the same seriousness and respect as those between men and women, had more far-reaching implications than many law reformers were able to recognise. Decriminalisation opened the way to a claim for the right to marry because marriage remains the most powerful institution in our society for registering the essential dignity of a relationship between two human beings. The logic of moving beyond mere grudging tolerance for homosexuality and homosexuals, and instead recognising the basic worth and integrity of homosexual relationships, was to change the marriage law to allow for a complete equality.

In permitting Labor parliamentarians a conscience vote on this issue, national conference effected an oily compromise. As has been pointed out by proponents of same-sex marriage, Labor would not allow a conscience vote on a matter of racial or gender discrimination. But unless the Coalition allows its MPs a conscience vote as well, the measure will certainly be defeated. It might be defeated even if they do. The prime minister is an opponent of gay marriage but her failure so far to articulate a reasoned case against it, either at conference or in any other forum, raises serious questions about her political sincerity on this issue, and her capacity to provide leadership on any complex moral or social issue.

Power over marriage falls squarely within the competence of the national parliament. It’s all there in Section 51 of the Australian Constitution. This isn’t an issue that politicians can avoid. We pay Commonwealth parliamentarians to represent us on the full range of matters outlined in that document, not just those they choose to regard as worthy of their attention.

Gillard’s failure to articulate a coherent position on same-sex marriage is a sign of the times; a measure of the rapid sea-change in attitudes. There is no better indication of a fundamental shift of opinion than when those who claim to be opponents of a measure can no longer summon secular arguments that will float in mainstream public discourse. (One can find religious arguments to support or oppose just about anything.) That is fundamentally why all the talk has been about the electoral disaster that supposedly awaits the Labor Party on account of this question.

And that’s also why the Murdoch press will open its columns to every cardinal, bishop, rabbi, mullah or Shoppies union official with something to say about it in the weeks, months and probably years ahead. •

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