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?
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.