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Marriage equality supporters' hope for a free conscience vote

  • 16 October 2016
  My preferred position has always been that all members of parliament be given a free conscience vote on any bill amending the Marriage Act to include same sex marriage.

At the June 2015 conference, the Labor Party decided to maintain a free conscience vote during the life of the last 44th parliament and during the life of this 45th parliament. But it then decided that in the next 46th parliament, Labor members would be bound to vote in favour of same sex marriage.

This move had two political effects. First, it removed the pressure on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to allow a free conscience vote on his side. Second, it provided opponents of same sex marriage on the government side with the encouragement to design strategies to put in place an alternative to a free conscience vote in the parliament.

Thus was born the idea of a national plebiscite and a formal requirement in the Coalition agreement that a plebiscite be held. Malcolm Turnbull was elected to the leadership of the Liberal Party but on the condition that he honour the commitment to the plebiscite. That's why it was placed in the Coalition agreement at the time of Turnbull's accession to the Liberal Party leadership.

Those who want the government to revise its policy and allow a free conscience vote now need to take this history into account. They also need to consider just how locked in is Turnbull and his government.

The Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove in his formal speech for the opening of the 45th parliament announced on 30 August 2016: 'A decision on the same-sex marriage plebiscite will be made by all Australians via that plebiscite as soon as practical. My government will ask Australians to make a decision as a nation and then to respect the outcome.'

Introducing the Plebiscite (Same Sex) Marriage Bill on 14 September, Turnbull told the House: 'I remind the House, the parliament, that Australians expect this issue to be resolved in the manner they endorsed at the election. We took this to the election and we won the election. There was no doubt about our policy. There was no doubt about our platform.

'This was prominently debated every day of the election campaign. Every Australian who took any interest in the election knew that that was our policy. We have a mandate for it, and the opposition should respect it.'


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