Conscience votes on same-sex marriage legislation

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Conscience votes on same-sex marriage legislation

Posted 22/12/2011 by Deirdre McKeown

In the last months of 2011 there was much media interest in the possibility of the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party allowing a conscience vote on the issue of same-sex marriage.

On 3 December 2011, delegates to the ALP national conference voted in favour of the amendment to the party platform moved by Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, allowing members a conscience vote on same-sex marriage (208 votes to 184). Members of the Left faction had argued strongly against treating same-sex marriage as a conscience issue. Delegates also agreed to change the definition of marriage (carried unanimously on the voices) by:

... amend[ing] the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples, irrespective of sex, who have a mutual commitment to a shared life. These amendments should ensure that nothing in the Marriage Act imposes an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage.
The ALP member for Throsby (NSW), Stephen Jones, has confirmed that he will introduce a private member’s bill, early in 2012, to amend the Marriage Act 1961.

Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has said that the Liberal Party’s stated position is that ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’ and that ‘every member of my coalition was elected on that position’. Mr Abbott has indicated that there are internal party processes that need to be followed and that the matter [of a conscience vote] ‘won’t be finalised until the party room considers this in the new year [2012]’. Liberal members Malcolm Turnbull, Simon Birmingham and Russell Broadbent have stated publicly that they support a conscience vote on same-sex marriage.

Ten countries have already enacted same-sex marriage legislation: Argentina, Canada, Belgium, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden. A number of US states have also passed same-sex marriage legislation.

In some Westminster parliaments political parties have dealt with the issues of civil unions and same-sex marriage in varying ways. The Canadian Parliament passed the Civil Marriage Act in 2005. The governing Liberal Party allowed backbenchers a conscience vote but not members of the cabinet, while the Conservative Party and Bloc Québécois allowed all their members a conscience vote. The National Democratic Party did not allow a conscience vote in accordance with the party’s policy to support same-sex marriage.

The New Zealand Parliament passed the Civil Union Act in 2004. All parties granted members a conscience vote on the bill.

In the United Kingdom the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was supported by all main parties. There was no conscience vote on the bill. In a recent speech to the Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister, David Cameron, declared his support for same-sex marriage. A formal consultation process will commence in March 2012. The Prime Minister has not responded to calls from some Conservative members for a conscience vote on the issue. Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, has personally endorsed same-sex marriage but has not made a statement on the issue of a conscience vote.

In the Australian states and territories five parliaments have enacted civil union legislation. They are listed in the table below which also indicates which parties allowed a conscience vote:

Tasmania Relationships Act 2003ALP: NoLiberal Party: Yes
New South Wales Relationships Register Act 2010ALP: NoCoalition: Yes
Victoria Relationships Act 2008ALP: NoCoalition: Yes
Queensland Civil Partnerships Act 2011ALP: YesLNP: No
A.C.T. Civil Partnerships Act 2008ALP: NoLiberal Party: No

In each case, except Queensland, the legislation was introduced by the Government. In Queensland the Deputy Premier introduced a private member’s bill.

The Parliamentary Library publication, Conscience votes during the Howard Government 1996-2007, includes an analysis of conscience votes during this period and, at Appendix 3, a detailed list of conscience votes since 1950 showing which parties allowed a conscience vote. There have been no conscience votes in the federal parliament since November 2006.

An earlier publication, Free votes in Australian and some overseas parliaments, has details of issues that have attracted a conscience vote in state and overseas parliaments and the main parties’ attitudes to conscience votes.

Authored by Deirdre McKeown and Rob Lundie


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