The following is the text of a speech given by Australian Workers’ Union National Secretary Paul Howes at the Future of Marriage Equality Forum, held at the Beauchamp Hotel in Darlinghurst on the night of Wednesday, October 2.
I believe a core element of what separates progressives from conservatives is the capacity to reflect and admit when you are wrong, so that you might arrive at an improved position in the future.
As some of you may know I have delivered my fair share of mea culpas in the past.
Well, here’s another.
Despite my unwavering support for marriage equality, during my attempts to defeat elements of my party opposed to legislative change, I was involved in dealings that resulted in Labor’s current ‘conscience vote’ position.
Sometimes, in search of a political fix, you can lose site of the big picture.
So please allow me to make something clear to you tonight: the Australian Labor Party’s current position and my view at Labor’s last National Conference on marriage equality is wrong.
By designating marriage equality as a conscience vote issue, we have allowed ourselves to make a basic category error; one which I believe fundamentally grates with what it is that the Labor Party stands for.
Conscience votes should be reserved for those very rare issues of individual moral judgment, in which the issue at hand simply defies objective boundaries.
Conceptions of when human life begins and the conditions under which it should be extinguished can fit this definition.
Marriage equality, on the other hand, does not even come close.
It is not an issue of individual conscience; it is a matter of basic social justice.
Whether or not a person supports marriage equality is a very straightforward test of whether they consider equality to be a primary or secondary concern.
True Labor people should never waver when asked to perform this ranking.
This does not mean that Labor has been infallible on our core principle of egalitarianism in the past.
Far from it.
But the great thing about our side is we do not cling grimly to mistaken beliefs. We do not believe tradition should ever trump justice.
We have proven ourselves willing to admit to errors of the past, correct them and move forward toward a fairer society.
The Australian labour movement, of course, had a pivotal role in creating – and then dismantling – the White Australia Policy. I believe there are important parallels that we can learn from.
Our shameful history of racial discrimination was not ended overnight. It took a long and winding path.
The last vestiges of race-based discrimination were not finally wiped from our system of the laws until the Whitlam Government passed the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.
By that point, of course, most of the practical effects of racial discrimination had already been removed.
In 1957, non-Europeans with 15 years’ residence in Australia were allowed to become citizens. One year later, entry permits were abolished and references to race were removed from our statutes. By 1966, the White Australia Policy was notionally abolished.
But it was only in 1975, with the Racial Discrimination Act, that we sent a vital final message to our society and the world – all races in this country are equal and our laws do not recognise a qualitative difference between them.
Loud and clear every citizen was told: your government does not believe that you are any better or worse than those who are different to you racially.
And in Australia today, when it comes to equality between those in heterosexual relationships as opposed to those in homosexual relationships, we are still waiting for such a final historic moment.
Just like with racial discrimination, it is vital to understand that our past discrimination against people in same sex relationships is not some sort of fundamental starting point for humanity. We must never grant it the legitimacy of a default position.
It, like the White Australia policy, is simply a function of our evolving history. Removing government discrimination in Australia on a range of issues has always been an evolution in this country.
And on the issue of equality based on sexuality we have seen a similar path forged. Meaning that the familiar staggering, swaying march toward equality is still waiting for its conclusion.
In the 1970s, South Australia became the first state to legalise sexual intercourse between men. In 1996, Tasmania became the last.
It took until 1994, unbelievably, for the federal government to pass laws that finally decriminalised homosexuality.
And along the way we have created a legal framework that confers equal rights to same sex-couples when it comes to property, taxation, adoption and the break-up of relationships.
We’re so close.
But we still haven’t hit that 1975 moment. That moment when we send an unambiguous, liberating message rippling through society: that there is nothing inferior about gay people, there is nothing inferior about their relationships and our society does not condone anyone who believes otherwise.
It is the Labor Party – and not individual Labor members – who need to take this overdue step forward.
Because this belief – that no one is inherently better or worse than anyone else, that no one should be more entitled to what our society offers than anyone else – is our defining Labor value.
It was what guided us in 1891 when a group of shearers decided that they could be influential in guiding a nation.
It was what guided my AWU predecessor, Laurie Short, when he started reaching out to the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks and the Italians who had started working in our factories and steelworks – while others were still preaching distrust and fear.
It is what should guide us now.
I want tonight to urge my Party to finally disown this phony notion that we should be affording equal respect to both sides of the gay marriage debate, as if it were some exquisitely balanced moral quandary that could never be unlocked by mere mortals.
It is not.
It is a very basic question of equality and every moment that we fail to recognise it as such is a moment in which we are denying our true Labor values.
And the fact is that being true to our Labor principles on this issue is much easier than it has been at other historic points of social change.
Such has been Labor’s stalling on this matter, that we are now in a phase of Australian history where just about every reasonable person knows that gay marriage is inevitable.
The average Australian does not fear it.
Support for marriage equality is not, as the zealots who oppose it claim, only palatable to inner city hipsters.
My job means I’m constantly talking to working Australians all over the country, listening to what it is that concerns them.
Let me assure you I don’t hear a lot of gnashing of teeth about the prospect of allowing two men to marry.
I don’t encounter a lot of terror about the prospect of two lesbians getting hitched.
Most Australians these days have close relatives, or close friends, or trusted workmates who are in same-sex relationships.
So unlike at other points in history, the ALP’s job requires relatively little courage.
And if we continue to muck about all we will be doing is delaying the inevitable.
All we will be doing is engaging in a futile effort to roadblock social progress, due to an immature desire to cling to an idealised image of moral certainty that we know, deep in our hearts, never actually existed.
And Australia already has the Coalition to do that.
Now I don’t wish to be completely dismissive of the obstructions to gay marriage.
Whenever people have been conditioned to believe that something is distasteful or inferior, it is jarring to have that position challenged by society’s lawmakers.
That’s human nature.
But such jarring is not – and nor should it ever be – justification for inaction.
Not from true progressives. Not from the Australian Labor Party.
A conscience vote on this issue is frankly a cop-out; I regret the role that I played in securing that outcome.
It was a position arrived at for one reason and one reason alone. Political expediency. No one wanted to deal with the consequences of having the hard but necessary discussion internally and saying that. Arbitrary moral judgment or religious interpretation should never, ever trump egalitarianism.
If Labor continues to cling to this position – then reaching that final moment when we as a nation can be proud of truly being the home of the fair go for all – will forever remain out of reach.
In the lead-up to the next National Conference of the Labor Party, I am hopeful that many others like me who mistakenly supported a conscience vote will realise the error of their ways and realise that for Labor to have a conscience, we must not allow a conscience vote on this fundamental issue of righting a wrong that exists in our society.
And frankly, if you find yourself believing otherwise then it is my strong belief that you do not belong with us.