Mark Arbib, powerbroker of the Labor right, has come out in support of equal marriage, suggesting Labor MPs should have a conscience vote on the issue. Australian Workers Union leader Paul Howes and Queensland premier Anna Bligh have joined the bandwagon, too.

Clearly, those much-derided ‘focus-groups’ are now telling Labor they’re out of synch with public opinion. But Labor policy can’t be changed except by the party conference, and the next one isn’t due for 18 months. As one member posted on the party website, that’s “too long to wait to be continually beaten around the head… by the Greens.”

The pressure is now on to hold the party conference early. At that conference, Labor will have to choose between the compromise option of a conscience vote, and a principled one of either outright opposition or full support for equal marriage.

A conscience vote is superficially attractive. After all, isn’t politics supposed to be the art of compromise? But it risks inflaming the divisions within the party, while not being a sufficiently robust position to stop the flight to the Greens.

Plumping for a conscience vote only postpones the day when Labor confronts its internal contradictions and decides whether it wants to be a progressive party, or a purely pragmatic, principle-free one. The existing compromise will not hold.

And tempting though a conscience vote is, it’s fraught with danger for us. What happens if we lose a conscience vote? Will it advance the cause of marriage, or hold it back? And what kind of a precedent will it set, where human rights are in future granted according to individual whim – the personal beliefs or prejudices of individual members of parliament?

The conference could instead trump the Greens by committing Labor to wholeheartedly support equal marriage. And there are good reasons why the party should go down this path.

Labor isn’t just losing voters and members to the Greens – it’s also losing potential candidates. In an earlier era, Adam Bandt would have stood for Labor, as would many who now stand as Greens. And in the longer term, Labor risks losing sitting members. How long will it be before MPs on the left, clinging to their newly-marginal seats by their fingernails, start wondering if it might be better to join the Green tide, instead of waiting to be swept away by it?

It’s all very reminiscent of the strife in the Anglican church, where an impotent primate continues to propose compromises that satisfy no one, only to see the historic compromise between Catholics and Protestants that is the whole basis of his church, finally fall apart. That’s the trouble with compromises. They are only ever a temporary solution.

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