The ALP national conference was expected to be a tight ship. But one issue that showed possibility of provoking some real debate was gay marriage rights.Five years since Howard lead the charge to ban gay marriage by re-wording the Marriage Act, discontent with Rudd’s failure to change the tune is beginning to boil over.
A gay Labor members lobby group, Rainbow Labor, headed up a push within the party to change ALP policy, which, like the Marriage Act, labelled marriage as something that must be “between a man and a woman”, and opposed gay rights legislation that would “mimic marriage”.
This was a very welcome shift from Rainbow Labor, who had previously stopped short of demanding same-sex marriage, or publicly criticising the government’s continuation of the homophobic ban.
Lobby group Equal Love organised solid demonstrations in major centres on August 1, to coincide with both the anniversary of the ban and the conference.
They were the biggest demonstrations for gay marriage in Australian history, with over 8000 coming out across the country. Such a turn out for one-off demonstrations indicates the depth of the mood for change—and the growing frustration at inaction. The rallies themselves were lively, spirited and angry.
Many had expected the Rudd government to deliver on gay rights once elected, even though they had been anything but strident supporters in the lead up to the election.
As Doug Pollard, executive director of JoyFm, wrote in Crikey: “We voted them in because anything was an improvement on Howard. We accepted their gay policies were less than perfect, knowing that they didn’t want to frighten the fundies. But we hoped they would cast off those shackles once elected.”
Labor Left sells empty compromise
Despite the hopes of many, the conference did not deliver a decision to change the Marriage Act.
Rainbow Labor and their allies in the Labor Left agreed to water down their demands, and settled for a slightly less offensive re-wording of the current policy—to take out the explicit reference as marriage between a “man and a woman”.
Cabinet Minister Anthony Albanese brokered the resolution, and said afterward “sometimes you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need…the resolution before this conference provides the latter.”
But empty symbolism is not what gays need or want. Albanese effectively brokered a get-out-of-jail free card for those in the party still vocal against same-sex marriage, including Rudd. The Prime Minister used the debate to reiterate his opposition to gay marriage.
Instead of standing up strongly, the Labor Left sold the compromise. This is not a step forward—it is left cover for an unchanged homophobic position.
Rainbow Labor and the Labor Left should have moved an alternative resolution. Even if this meant they would lose the debate on the conference floor, it would have massively boosted the pressure on Rudd to act.
The conference agreed to an inquiry on same-sex “relationship registers”—but even this won’t challenge the fundamental homophobia embedded in the marriage ban. While it remains law, the ban will signal that gays and their relationships are inferior.
Many can’t understand why Rudd would continue to enforce and promote the ban—it seems anachronistic that gays would still be denied such a basic right. Many of the speakers at the rally asked why the government is intent on maintaining such an obviously discriminatory and very unpopular law.
But the homophobia of the marriage ban has a purpose for Rudd. He has continuously used homophobia to send the signal that he is a socially conservative Prime Minister, ready to stand up for traditional “family values”.
Australia’s rulers remain committed to the nuclear family, a bedrock of broader capitalist social relations. And Rudd knows well the important role the “dog-whistle” politics of division can play in maintaining power.
A victory for the gay marriage campaign would be a victory against Rudd’s socially conservative agenda, and a victory against the divisive homophobia that holds it up.
We need to build a left capable of turning the sentiment seen on August 1 into consistent action to win gay rights.
By Amy Thomas