Australia's ruling Labor Party has voted resoundingly in support of gay marriage. However, gay and lesbian couples Down Under would be ill-advised to send out the invitations just yet.
Federal lawmakers will not be forced to support gay marriage when the issue comes before the parliament next year, as the party has handed dissenters — and there are many — a Get Out of Jail Free card in the form of a "conscience vote," the Sydney Morning Herald reports.
The conscience vote — a motion endorsed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard during the party's annual conference in Sydney this weekend — entitles legislators to vote on the issue according to their personal beliefs rather than being forced to vote in line with the party’s official position, as is customary.
The semi-satirical website Crikey.com saw it thus:
The ALP’s 46th National Conference has decided to allow a conscience vote on gay marriage, with delegates voting 208 to 184 to permit conservative MPs to discriminate against same sex couples.
Prime Minister Gillard — who is unmarried — opposes any changes to Australia’s Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriage.
According to The Australian newspaper, Gillard has made her position on same-sex marriage "central to her leadership."
The reason, the paper says, is that she told power brokers in the Labor Party who enabled her to oust Kevin Rudd as party leader last year that she would never support gay marriage.
The stance is at odds with most Australians, according to recent polling which shows that a majority favor allowing same-sex marriage.
A poll commissioned by the Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty, which opposes gay marriage, found that more people support gay marriage rights than not — 49 percent versus 40 percent — although it is not a top priority in the country.
The survey, reported by Pink News, also found that Australia's Labor Party would lose 2.2 percent of its voters if it supported marriage equality — a risky prospect for a government that holds a wafer-thin majority in the parliament over the conservative Liberal Party.
The Liberal Party — led by Tony Abbot, who once trained for the Catholic priesthood — opposes same-sex marriage.
The opposition has taken the line that gay marriage is a distraction for a ruling party that has many bigger issues to address, and showed that the Labor was out of touch with the concerns of mainstream Australia.
The Australian quoted opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb as saying that the government was "obsessed with gay marriage at a time when Europe was on the cusp of economic meltdown and most Australians were more interested in the cost of living, their power bills and job security."
"While they're talking about gay marriage, there's boats turning up at Christmas Island," Robb reportedly said, in reference to the slow burn issue of asylum seekers.
However, the issue was debated passionately and at length by Labor lawmakers and party members at the Sydney conference.
Arguing for the status quo, Joe de Bruyn, national secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, one of the country's largest unions, said:
"This issue is one we should decide with our heads, not on the basis of emotion. The definition of marriage as set out in the legislation is that it is the union of one man and one woman, voluntarily entered into for life. It has always been that way since the dawn of humanity."
Sen. John Faulkner, however, brought many in the audience to a standing applause by saying it was the government's job to protect human rights:
"Human rights can never be at the mercy of individual opinions or individual prejudices. They are not privileges to be extended to one person and denied to another according to the whims of popular opinion or the whims of the government of the day. They are inherent in each and every one of us simply because we are human."
The policy amendment was formally proposed by ACT Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr — a life-long Labor Party member who is also gay and in a long-term committed relationship — and seconded by Finance Minister Penny Wong.
Wong, who was the first openly gay member of the Australian federal cabinet. In August, Wong announced that she and her long-term partner, Sophie Allouache, were expecting their first child this month, with Allouache falling pregnant through IVF.)
The amendment says:
"Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all 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 solemnize any marriage."