The faceless man who might just have a soul

Well, Mark Arbib’s support for gay marriage is a shock. I wasn’t aware that he had a conscience, an opinion independent of ALP polling, or even a face. His most significant recent contribution to public debate was ducking out of that episode of Q&A, when he was represented, entirely adequately, by an empty chair. And yet he was the first frontbencher to break from the party’s wussy, wedge-avoiding stance on the issue. I couldn’t be more surprised if I discovered that Genghis Khan enjoyed flower-arranging.

Arbib ran rather an eloquent line in the Weekend Oz, saying “If I was the parent of a gay son or daughter I don’t know how I could tell them they didn’t have the same rights as I do.” Now, I know this might be an absurd thing to say of a renowned ALP head-kicker, but could it be that these words smack of… a little something called empathy?

Gay marriage remains a controversial topic – my previous post about it for The Drum attracted an astonishing 588 comments. As ever, not one of the hundreds of commenters, provided a sensible, non-religious reason for maintaining the ban on gay marriage that went beyond Pauline Hanson’s “I don’t like it”. Most pollies, Julia Gillard and Hillary Clinton included, stick doggedly to the banal formula that things should stay the same without ever specifying why. But surely discrimination should never be the default setting for a law without an extremely good reason?

Presumably Gillard’s reason is “polling in a few marginals we don’t want to lose”. So much, then, for the supposedly progressive side of politics.

But I don’t want to get bogged down in the question of whether gay marriage should be legal again. It just should. If you disagree, read the judgment by US Federal judge Vaughn Walker who says that the ban has “no rational basis“. And if you still disagree, by all means stop reading this blog and go back to torturing kittens, bullying the disabled, or whatever is your preferred means of denying others happiness that doesn’t inconvenience you in the slightest.

The interesting development this week, though, is that a Cabinet minister has come out in favour of gay marriage, on the basis of personal conscience. Usually the Labor way, especially for those in Cabinet, is to resolve their position behind the closed Caucus doors and then stick to it in public. That’s why poor, loyal Penny Wong had to back a policy that there’s surely no chance she actually agrees with, and Peter Garrett had to look like such a hypocrite over uranium mining.

This principle of collective action also explains why many supporters of gay marriage have opposed a conscience vote. And I can see their point. While it sounds delightfully idealistic to let every MP follow their own private view, to do so unjustifiably distinguishes this from any other public policy. If those who dissent on uranium mining have to suck it up, why shouldn’t the opponents of gay marriage be forced do the same thing in the unlikely event that the majority support it?

This collective principle is so fundamental to how Labor operates that either Mark Arbib is truly going rogue, or something broader is afoot in the Labor Party. Call me a cynic, but we’re talking about Arbib here – it’s entirely appropriate. After all, Karl Bitar has just acknowledged that the”real Julia” was not a sudden outbreak of the PM’s irrepressible personality but a carefully planned circuit-breaker. So I assume Arbib’s statement was part of a plan, especially as Paul Howes said similar things over the weekend.

If there is genuinely a new paradigm in our politics, I would argue that it’s this – voters have had a gutful of the current approach to campaigning. We’re a nation with finely-tuned bullshit detectors, and Labor’s hapless campaign should have placed it on notice that the strategy of cautious triangulation that got Rudd elected isn’t going to cut it anymore. Being the slightly less heartless, slightly more enviro-friendly version of John Howard’s Liberals worked in 2007, but the wheels fell off with his centrist approach with the ETS, and so badly that they had to dump him.

If Labor goes on as it is, it’ll continue to leak votes to the genuine articles – the Coalition and the Greens. Everyone knows what they stand for, except perhaps Joe Hockey when floating a bizarrely socialist bubble about regulating interest rates.

So I can only assume that, ironically, Labor’s polling is telling them to be less poll-driven. And that’s why we’re seeing ministers displaying signs of a conscience, and kids being let out of detention because, in contravention of years of Labor strategy, it happens to be right rather than popular.

It’s presumably also why the Prime Minister’s talking about this referendum recognising indigenous Australians. In keeping with her former role as Rudd’s deputy, it’s a bit wishy-washy, addressing symbolism rather than substance. And she’s hardly going out on a limb – seriously, what manner of heartless scumbag would oppose symbolic recognition of Australia’s origins in our Constitution? (Wilson Tuckey, and who else?) But her move still ever so slightly makes it look like she cares about something beyond her own survival. Which, she presumably now recognises, may well be the only way she can guarantee it.

Labor has been so eager to adopt the dark arts of modern campaigning that it’s polled and strategised itself into a hole. And it’s to the credit of voters that we rewarded its recent campaign with a hung parliament. Now, from the unlikely source of Mark Arbib, we may be seeing the hesitant first buds of regrowth.

The ALP’s strategists have to ask itself whether any principle is so sacred that it can’t be compromised in a bid to win government. And after they answer “of course not”, they need to remember that as Tony Abbott proved, there are votes in looking like you believe in something. If Mark Arbib can manufacture the appearance of a conscience, then the Labor Party might just be able to do the same. And pushing through gay marriage, leading public opinion rather than merely following it, would be an excellent place to start.

5 Responses to The faceless man who might just have a soul

  1. Mathew 9 November 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    I can’t fault this article.

    I especially love this line:

    “As ever, not one of the hundreds of commenters, provided a sensible, non-religious reason for maintaining the ban on gay marriage that went beyond Pauline Hanson’s “I don’t like it””

    Its always the way.

    On Q&A last night, Economics Barbie (Janet Albrechtsen) states that although she is non religious, she doesn’t believe in same sex marriage. Even my girlfriend, a conservative religious type, said that response was utterly full of shit. Seriously, that woman is just evil.

    My girlfriend was actually (finally) convinced in favour of same sex marriage by Randa Abdel-Fattah in saying “I don’t believe in gay marriage either, as a devout muslim, but I think that in a secular democratic society I can’t sustain that argument because my religious beliefs can’t be imposed upon others.

    If Mark Arbib wasn’t a senator, I’d say he was vying for leadership of the party

  2. Daniel 10 November 2010 at 11:40 am #

    Great article. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that they *would* still be following public opinion here, as surveys show a very large majority of Australians support gay marriage. So this is actually a case of asking the typically poll-driven ALP to abandon its apparently *principled* stand against gay marriage (even if the principle in question is yet to be justified in any way).

    Since the ALP has maintained its conservative position in *spite* of the polls, it should probably not be used as an example of where the ALP is weak and populist. Although it may be an example of where the ALP only bucks public opinion when it is fairly sure the issue will not really influence votes.

    I think you’re right to sense that Mark Arbib’s comments are probably not an accident – I don’t trust him to blurt out a position in such marked contrast to every Cabinet minister and party official in the last three years, and not realise the significance of doing so, which you describe well. Maybe this is meant to get the wheels moving towards a change in the party’s position? If so, for the moment I don’t mind too much whether it’s due to conscience or a desire to reflect the majority’s wishes or fear that it might become more influential on votes in the future.

  3. Marcelle 11 November 2010 at 1:21 pm #

    Is it too much to hope that Labor might also grow a spine when it comes to tackling climate change without squibbing out again?

    Which of the power brokers is going to take up this baton?

    Nice work Mr Knight

  4. Lucy 11 November 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    Let’s hope for common sense from the kitten torturers, and a kinder future. Shameful interference in human happiness!

  5. Daniel 16 November 2010 at 7:58 am #

    Hey, appears he’s been given a Cabinet “shellacking”…

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