Conscience, lamented Hamlet, does make cowards of us all.
Well, maybe; but it can certainly also counsel caution, and as another wise Shakespearean, Falstaff, observes, the better part of valour is discretion.
There can be no doubt that Tanya Plibersek’s campaign to end Labor’s longstanding conscience vote on same-sex marriage is a bold one and her logic is impeccable. Conscience votes should be reserved for life-and- death issues such as euthanasia and abortion, and same-sex marriage is self-evidently not one of those: it is matter of equality, like racial, religious and gender issues are, and the ALP should never resile from arguing their virtues.
But in politics black-and- white perceptions are seldom so simple. For many years the question over the criminalisation or otherwise of homosexuality, obviously not what Plibersek would categorise as a life-and-death issue, was a highly controversial topic in both the public and the parliament; it was in fact resolved federally when John Gorton and Moss Cass sponsored a private member’s bill in the late 70s, which was passed – but only through a conscience vote.
On the other side, capital punishment – by any measure a life-and-death issue – was held by both Liberal and Labor as party policy, binding on all members.
The Libs were in favour of it, Labor against. In 1961 Robert Menzies sought to force the issue through legislation. The neophyte MP Don Chipp obtained an interview with the great man, and was given permission to abstain.
And when he left the chamber to loiter in Kings Hall, he spied the portly figure of Labor’s Bert James attempting to hide behind a pillar; James, a former prison warden and fierce supporter of the death penalty, had absented himself from his party, risking instant sacking. The second the division bells ceased and the doors were locked, James charged forward, just missing the vote and was spared.
Thus the two rebels were effectively paired.
In practice, conscience votes have invariably been dictated by religion, mainly by the Roman Catholic Church.
But the problems run much deeper. Conscience votes are supposed to be about serious public issues, but in fact are entirely confined to the personal concerns of the private beliefs of members of parliament. The declaration of war, for instance, a life-and-death issue if there ever were one, is not considered a matter of conscience – individuals can claim conscientious objection if they wish, but not their elected representatives.
And there are very many greyer issues which could be debated within the cover of conscience. But they are not; Labor, in particular, is bound to caucus solidarity by its party rules.
And the Liberals, while boasting that as the party of individual freedom they have a conscience vote on everything, are barely less constrained.
Same-sex marriage is the prime example: Tony Abbott imposed his own captain’s pick by declaring it out of court. It was, he told his party room, the policy members took to the previous election – meaning, in fact, it was the policy he announced at the previous election. And so far they have stuck, although some are now demanding, wait for it, a conscience vote on the issue.
In practice, conscience votes have invariably been dictated by religion, mainly by the Roman Catholic Church. Its many apologists deny that this is the case; many others, they say, follow the same restrictions. The Greek Orthodox, the Assyrians – now, of course, even the Muslims have very similar laws on such matters, although there are not a lot in the party rooms.
There are even some unbelievers – Julia Gillard, an avowed atheist, herself said that while she was all in favour of gay rights, she was uncomfortable with marriage in all its forms, and so supported a conscience rather than a binding vote in her caucus. Cynics have suggested that her decision also happened to suit her union base, headed by the shop assistants and their dictatorial secretary Joe de Bruyn, a hard-line conservative once wonderfully described by Gough Whitlam as a Dutchman who hates dykes.
But be that as it may, while the ALP’s national policy is to endorse same sex-marriage, its parliamentarians have been reluctant to follow through and put their principles into practice. The reason, of course, is the large number of practising Catholics in the party room, some of whom would, if it came to a crunch, follow the pope rather than policy. Expelling all, or even some of them, could force a catastrophic split, so until now the conscience vote has been allowed to remain.
The argument that it would also seek to embarrass the Liberals into following the same path is also a factor, though a far less important one. The comforting theory is that same-sex marriage is accepted by a public majority, and will obviously happen sooner or later: so why make trouble in the meantime?
But Plibersek has obviously decided, in the manner of another tough political woman, that enough is enough: it is time for her colleagues to put their votes where their mouths are, and if they won’t do so voluntarily, they will have to be told. She wants to enforce a decision at Labor’s national conference in July and at the time of writing it appears that she has a fair chance of gaining the numbers to win.
And by what may or may not be a coincidence, her insistence, even to open the debate for a public showdown, will mightily embarrass her leader Bill Shorten. Shorten is of course a Catholic himself, but claims he would vote for same-sex marriage if a bill were produced in parliament. But Shorten, whose middle name is caution – or, his enemies say, vacillation – wants to keep it as a conscience vote, and most, although not all, of his frontbenchers seem to agree.
As a point of interest the women seem to be more enthusiastic for the change than the men – the arguments have opened divisions of gender as well as religion. In the last couple of months, there were vigorous, and as time goes on even frantic, attempts to contain them. But having opened Pandora’s box, the deputy leader is in no mood to try to close it, even if she could do so.
Another quotation from the bard: ‘Oh coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!’ That one is from Richard III, Shakespeare’s pantomime villain invented to curry favour with the rulers of the time. Perhaps it is more apposite to go back to Hamlet, in a more determined mood this time: The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king!
And Labor’s supreme policy-making body may indeed produce exciting, and possibly climactic, drama in the theatre of July.