Despite a significant, if partial, win on marriage equality for the movement, the right-ward shift of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) continued apace at its recently concluded national conference.
The tone of the 10,000-strong demonstration for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples outside the conference in Sydney’s Darling Harbour on December 4 was more angry than celebratory even though the conference had just voted to accept marriage equality in ALP policy.
The protesters knew that the policy change had been won despite PM Gillard’ s opposition. They were also furious that the conference then gave in to Gillard and the party’s Right faction by allowing Labor MPs a so-called “conscience vote”, that is the right to vote against party policy in Parliament.
“Julia Gillard, ALP, we demand equality! Shame, Julia, shame!” the huge crowd shouted outside the convention centre.
“If you are a politician there is no where for you to hide”, campaigner Kerryn Phelps told the protest outside the ALP conference.
“The only way to get rid of us is to introduce marriage equality and do it now.”
This was met with thunderous applause.
Not that ignoring party policy is anything new for the ALP. Just about every Labor government has ignored some part of official ALP policy, especially when it cuts against the interests of the corporate rich Labor governments have loyally served for more than a century.
The equal marriage rights protesters weren’t just moaning or whining that they were cheated out of a bigger win despite the fact that polls have shown that up to 7 out of 10 people support marriage equality in Australia. They were aware that the change in ALP policy was a won by the thousands who have taken to the streets for years in the biggest and broadest mass campaign for a democratic right seen in this country for many years.
Indeed, the movement used the weekend not just to protest but to organise. A “1Love – Equality, Marriage, Freedom” conference held in Sydney the following day planned two continue the mass protests with a cavalcade to Canberra for the first sitting of Parliament with a “Have a Heart, Vote for Marriage” action.
This was a practical recognition that there was now an opening to take the pressure to the Parliament even in the framework of the ALP conference’s “conscience vote” concession to the right.
“It is disappointing that Labor has failed to adopt a position of complete support for marriage equality,” Bandt said.
“However, Labor support for a conscience vote provides us with an opportunity to test Parliament’s support for marriage equality.”
“Labor’s decision now puts marriage equality in the hands of those Coalition members who have the courage to stand by their convictions.”
A recent Galaxy poll shows that the other traditional parties of government are equally pressed by growing public support for marriage equality. It found that 76% of people who support the Liberal-National coalition now support equal marriage rights. Popular former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull has called for a conscience vote in the Liberal party which could free an estimated 10-20 of its MPs to vote against their party’s policy and support same-sex marriage rights bill.
The angry reaction of religious conservatives to the ALP’s policy shift indicates that this was a significant win for the progressive movement. They know what this opens up.
Most political commentators think that with the ALP allowing its MPs to vote in Parliament against the party’s new pro-marriage equality policy, there will not be a parliamentary majority for a same-sex marriage rights bill.
If equal marriage rights activists outside the ALP conference on December 3, and their supporters among the delegates, were not celebrating (rather echoing these lines from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir’s moving rendition of We Shall Not Give Up The Fight at the end of the protest: “We shall not give up the fight, we have only started…”), the mood of refugee rights and anti-uranium mining and export protesters who marched on the ALP conference the next day was angry and bitter.
The two other headline policy retreats by the ALP in this conference were on refugees and uranium export to India, a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a country with nuclear weapons.
The retreat on uranium export to India comes in a long line of rollbacks for anti-uranium mining and export policy forced by a mass movement on the ALP when it was in opposition in the second half of the 1970s. In 1983, the policy was watered down to a “three mines policy” which allowed the Ranger, Narbelek and Roxby Downs uranium mines to go ahead. The three-mine policy was abandoned in 2007 and ironically one of the arguments for this was that uranium exports could only go to NTP-signatory nations. Now the ALP has dropped that condition.
On refugee rights, the ALP conference reaffirmed the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving illegally by boat and support for “offshore processing”, opening the door to revisiting the notorious “Malaysian solution” (a plan to deport asylum seekers to Malaysia that was defeated in Parliament earlier this year). An earlier Labor governent introduced mandatory detention of asylum seekers, a policy that has left thousands of desperate refugees (including 882 children at the last count) detained indefinitely without trial in ever-more detention camps around the country.
The fury of the crowd was palpable as Dianne Hiles from Children Out of Detention (Chilout) read out a list of the desperate refugees who have recently suicided in detention.
Notes on the conference by Nizza Siano (the secretary of Labor for Refugees), circulated around the movement by ALP member and refugee activist Jenny Haines, captured the bitter defeat of a reform motion by 27 votes.
Supporters of the governments inhuman refugee policy focussed their arguments on “people smugglers” and inferred that “somehow, if our amendments were supported, that would encourage people smuggling.”
“They also used the ‘queue jumping’ furfie without actually calling it that and claimed that we’d lose the election if our amendments were adopted. Strange that the Party leadership was prepared to push for a conscience vote in Parliament for same sex marriage but not for refugees/asylum seekers – an issue of life and death for some refugees. I’m trying hard not to feel bitter.”
Refugee activists too were not just moaning but used the mobilisation around the ALP conference protest as an organising point. Representatives of 10 groups from across the country met in the wake of the conference decision to discuss a campaign framework to escalate the campaign to free the refugees over the coming year. This will include a national convergence over the Easter weekend next year at the refugee detention camp in Darwin.
“The amendments are a step backwards for the Labor Party and the Labor government. The move to increase the refugee intake only on condition of the government implementing the Malaysia Agreement was an shabby piece of domestic politicking,” said Ian Rintoul, speaking on behalf of the national consultation of refugee activists.
“Any plan to expel asylum seekers to Malaysia, or any other third country is a fundamental Australia’s obligation to provide protection for who arrive on our shores fleeing persecution. But Chris Bowen is locked in an anti-refugee race to the bottom with Tony Abbott. Abbott says ‘Nauru’, while Bowen says, ‘Malaysia,’ ” he added.
Despite the ACTU’s promise that the ALP conference would deliver workers “enhanced rights to bargain for better pay and conditions and secure jobs” there was little to show for this except a bit of posturing. The construction unions’ planned motion to outlaw the hated Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) industry “Gestapo” special inspectors who have been victimising construction workers was reportedly withdrawn even before conference started because it didn’t have the numbers.
The ABCC was set up by the former Howard Coalition government to smash militant unions in the industry and it is ALP policy to abolish it but the Gillard Labor government has failed to deliver. Amendments moved this year to the legislation fall short of the promise to abolish it.
Grand promises to deliver a democratic reform of the ALP at this conference came to nothing and morphed into the ongoing leadership tussle between Gillard and former PM Kevin Rudd. The ALP’s membership has reportedly fallen from about 50,000 in the 1990s to 31,208 today. This still leaves it the biggest party in Australia though its ranks have not had control of the party for a long time.
The general pattern of policy change at this latest ALP conference follows the steady right-ward trend of conferences since the early 1980s. ALP leaders now boast that it was an ALP government that did what Margaret Thatcher did in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US – began the push for neo-liberal “reform”. In the process they’ve soured and debased the word “reform” in public discourse.
ALP politicians have sometimes looked for costless social reforms to cover their consistent betrayal of working class interests in the intersts of making the corporate rich even richer. It appeared for a while that they may have been hoping to use a turn on marriage equality as a way to re-sell the party as a party of popular reform. But when this reform is won, it will have been won by the activists in the streets and not delivered by the politicians.