In the past few weeks the parliamentary Australian Labor Party has come under a great deal of attack from within the lesbian, gay, bi and trans community (LGBT) for not fully supporting same-sex marriage. LGBT people hit social media to vent their anger at the failure of the same-sex marriage bills.
One person on my Facebook list called the Prime Minister a ‘bigot’ while another person suggested that we ‘send hate mail’ to all Labor parliamentarians who voted against marriage equality. Several people protested in their status’ that LGBT people must ‘vote against any politician’ who voted ‘against us’. As the anger flowed freely, Greens supporters pounced on the opportunity to remind people of their Party’s full support for marriage equality, while LGBT Liberal Party supporters remained surprisingly quiet.
But does the Labor Party really deserve so much anger from our community? A total 38 of the 71 Labor Members of the House of Representatives (MHR), 54% voted for marriage equality. While this number is still disappointing it is important to sit back and digest the numbers before we get too angry. In May this year a Galaxy Poll showed support for same-sex marriage in Australia was just 50% while support amongst Labor voters was just 54% .
Uncannily when the Labor party changed their policy to support same-sex marriage and have a parliamentary conscience vote on the issue, 54% of party delegates to their national conference voted in favour of the change. So while our community is understandably disappointed that only 54% of Labor MHR’s voted for marriage equality, their vote is both consistent and reflective of Labor party members, Labor voters, as well as the country as a whole.
There is another important fact that we must keep in mind as we digest the recent activities in Parliament. While the Gillard/Rudd Labor governments have failed to deliver marriage equality, they are never-the-less responsible for the largest pro-LGBT law reform package in the history of Australia.
Since Labor was elected in 2007, more LGBT positive law reform has taken place than all previous reforms combined. In 2008 the federal Labor Government delivered changes to 85 laws eliminating discrimination in areas including relationship recognition, tax, social security, health, hospital visitation rights, parenting, workplace, aging, immigration, inheritance, and public office.
Labor’s LGBT law reforms honoured a promise made by them before the 2007 federal election, and were undertaken within one year of taking office. These changes were estimated to cost Australia $400 million over four years and were arguably a risky and courageous move for a newly elected government that had been in opposition for 11 years. These incredible changes not only occurred with 100% support of Labor Members of Parliament, they also made a practical difference to the lives of all LGBT Australians.
When we began Australian Marriage Equality in 2004, Australia was a drastically different place for LGBT people. The majority of Australians were against same-sex marriage and many LGBT rights groups actively condemned our push for marriage equality. As we drowned in the final dark years of the Howard Government, same-sex couples continued to have no defacto recognition federally and no access to the family courts when our relationships and families broke down.
Marriage equality in 2004 was incredibly important as it would have provided us with an immense number of new rights and responsibilities. This all changed in 2008 when after the Labor LGBT law reforms were passed. Marriage equality no longer offers us ‘new’ rights, other than the right to call our relationship a marriage.
Thanks to various Labor state governments, same-sex couples now have the ability to ‘register’ their relationship if they want to have documented proof of their relationship, and we now have federal equality under the law when it comes to the important issues of tax, social security, health, hospital visitation rights, the workplace and many more.
I am not proposing that our community ignore Labors role in defeating marriage equality. I am also not suggesting that we all fall to our hands and knees and worship federal Labor for the reforms they have achieved. I am however suggesting that we keep in mind the incredibly historic achievements of federal Labor in removing discrimination and bringing greater equality to the LGBT community.
While I hope our LGBT community can stand back and recognize the amazing achievements of the Labor Government for LGBT equality, I am still the first person to put my hand up in support of marriage equality. When we began the push for marriage equality in 2004, we did so with the hope that asking for something so big would eventually lead to us getting all the other stuff in the middle.
While the Labor government reforms of 2008 gave us all that practical ‘middle stuff’ we still have a federal Marriage Act that forbids the recognition of same-sex couples married abroad. Change is still needed and despite the activities of the past few weeks, I believe we are heading in the right direction. However, we have to be careful not to bite the hand that feeds us.
The Australian Labor party remains the only major party to have a policy supporting marriage equality. They delivered the largest package of pro-LGBT law reform in Australian history with support from 100% of their members of parliament and within a tough electoral environment. While they may not have succeeded in achieving federal marriage equality, their actions reflect the views of their party members, their supporters, and the people of Australia.
So before you twitter your next anti-Labor tweet, take a step back from your recent disappointments and take a look at Tony Abbott waiting in the wings, remember how much better we are today than in 2004, take note of the immense change that Labor has provided us, and remember that Labor remains our largest ally and best hope for a future of full equality.
Luke Gahan is a PhD candidate and lecturer at La Trobe University’s Bouverie Centre