Last year I was lucky enough to be part of the studio audience for the ABC’s QandA programme with Tony Jones. It was not long after Julia Gillard had become Prime Minister and there was a popular view that factional bosses like Karl Bitar, Mark Arbib, David Feeney and Bill Shorten now enjoyed carte blanche authority within Labor Party. As it happened, Bill Shorten was the government’s representative on the QandA panel that episode. Earlier that week Mark Arbib and the ALP national president Anna Bligh had publically declared their support for same-sex marriage. These were not the words of errant backbenches but senior factional heavyweights from within the party machine, as such I was very curious about what another of these factional heavyweights would have to say on the issue.
The impression Shorten gave from his nuanced rhetoric was that he expected that same-sex marriage was eventually going to occur and for his part, he seemed to have no objections to this. Shorten stated firmly that the Labor Party policy would not be changed before the national conference in 2011 but seemed eager for a robust debate on the issue to occur at that conference. It was certainly impossible to conclude from the answers that Shorten gave, that he would oppose the changing of the Marriage Act at the national conference later this year.
Since then Julia Gillard has sternly maintained she is ideologically opposed to changing the commonwealth Marriage Act to recognize the marriage of same sex couples, all the while successive state conferences have overturned their position to contrast with hers. Joe de Bruyn has come out in support of Gillard but amongst senior factional figures he appears to be the only one. At the very least there appears to be a reasonable chance of the National Conference voting against Gillard’s position. If this happens she is in little position to ignore it. Her manifesto on coming to the leadership was that she would abandon the top-down authoritarian approach to policy which typified the Rudd leadership. None the less can she really be expected to force through the parliament a legislative amendment to which she has declared such unequivocal opposition ? One option might be to call a conscience vote on the issue, it would allow the Labor government to amend the legislation without her personally supporting its passage through the house. But sitting next to Tony Abbott on the opposition benches as her own colleagues, along with Messrs Bandt, Wilkie and Oakeshott pass the legislation would be a truly ugly look. Uglier still if Abbott turns out to have a tight leash on his backbenches and prevents them voting with the government. Such is the nature of this delicately hung parliament that in a conscience vote Gillard (and presumably Rudd) would kill off the legislative amendment.
The individual issue might not lose the party too many votes but a farcical incongruence between the parliamentary leadership and the national executive would be deeply embarrassing. In other parliaments it might have been possible for her to abstain but an abstention is as good as a nay in the new paradigm and she would have a mandate from her party to get that amendment passed. If she wins this issue at the national conference then she obviously has no problem but until that time it might be wise for her to tone down the rhetoric against it. She’s walking a tight enough rope as it is without having to do back-flips.