Australian PM faces stoush over gay marriage

27 Jul 2009

Phillip Coorey

The Rudd Government is facing a concerted push from within to extend to gay couples the right to marry or at least have access to a nationally recognised system of civil unions.

The effort to amend Labor's platform at the party's national conference this month is looming as one of the more significant policy showdowns that party officials are anticipating.

Rainbow Labor, a cross-factional organisation of gay, grassroots ALP members, has been working behind the scenes on proposed policy changes, despite a stated refusal by the Government to consider change.

The three-day conference concludes on August 1, which is also the national day of action for same-sex marriage. Rallies will be held in capital cities across the nation and a large demonstration is being planned for outside the Darling Harbour conference venue.

The group has been lobbying conference delegates, the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, and MPs, including the ministers Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek, whose inner-city electorates have large gay populations.

Labor's current policy opposes gay marriage. It supports nationally consistent, state-based civil union schemes based on the Tasmanian scheme introduced in 2004.

Labor's policy does not support schemes that "mimic marriage or undermine existing laws that define marriage as being between a man and a woman".

One of the proposals before the conference will be to remove from Labor's policy this definition of marriage. Others will focus on gay marriage and a national scheme of civil unions.

A co-convener of Rainbow Labor, Michael Vaughan, said only three jurisdictions - Tasmania, Victoria and the ACT - have civil unions. There was a lack of consistency among the three schemes and there was no provision for civil unions in any other state or territory.

"That, as a policy, hasn't worked," Mr Vaughan said of Labor's existing policy. "NSW doesn't even have anything."

Mr Vaughan acknowledged a national civil union scheme would have a greater chance of success at the conference than gay marriage.

A spokesman for Australian Marriage Equality, Rodney Croome, said civil unions were second-best.

The first proposal at the conference will be for gay marriage. Based on lobbying efforts so far, Mr Croome estimated gay marriage would garner about 30 per cent of the vote, not enough to be adopted but enough to send a message.

"It's important for this issue to be debated at the ALP national conference even if it is voted down, because it will show the ALP is willing to engage with contemporary social issues, and it will show the gay community their views are being taken seriously," Mr Croome said.

"It's an important first step. Repeated surveys show that a majority of gay and lesbian Australians want the right to marry, and not a second-best civil union scheme."

Over recent years, the ALP national conference has increasingly become a stage-managed affair designed to springboard Labor towards the next election.

Senior party officials said yesterday that the gay marriage push had the potential to rival the demands on procurement of Government goods and services and industrial relations that will be put by the trade union movement. These, too, are unlikely to succeed, but will dominate the conference agenda.

Article taken from The Sydney Morning Herald.