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'Why Plibersek's gay marriage pitch will fail'.

Tanya Plibersek wants to bind Labor MPs to a party position on gay marriage, but the tactics are all wrong, writes Barrie Cassidy.

No matter how fatigued and cynical seasoned political journalists become, they line up enthusiastically to hear debates in the Parliament set aside for a conscience vote.

Such debates are refreshingly honest and passionate, allowing members of Parliament on all sides to shed stringent party allegiances and follow their heartfelt convictions.

That the issue is not just restricted to religious beliefs make the debates even more compelling.

Now Labor’s Deputy Leader, Tanya Plibersek, wants to bind MPs to a party position on gay marriage, rather than allow a free vote based on personal beliefs.

Related content: Tanya Plibersek writes about marriage equality for Mamamia.

Plibersek has been accused of raising the issue only because her electorate has a high proportion of gay people, and the Greens, as a party committed, driven and united behind marriage equality, present as the only danger to her re-election.

More than that, her motives have been linked with the leadership, especially because Bill Shorten went on the record last year in a speech to the Australian Christian Lobby, locking himself into a conscience vote.

However, beyond that, her frustration is understandable. Despite a succession of opinion polls showing majority support for the move, the issue has been allowed to drift for years. Plibersek obviously believes that locking in Labor’s numbers will guarantee change.

But the party’s national conference will resist the call for a host of sound reasons.

Another view. Julia Gillard on gay marriage: “I got on this tram at a different stop”.

Undeniably the community wants change, but a conscience vote on both sides would be the best expression – and endorsement – of that attitude; an opinion freely expressed rather than one driven by party discipline.

The tactics are wrong as well; and that was best underlined by openly gay Liberal Senator, Dean Smith, who supports gay marriage.

He recently said that “if the ALP was to adopt a binding vote … then the issue of a conscience vote in the Liberal Party is dead”.

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He is right. Such a move by Labor would release the pressure on Tony Abbott to grant his side a conscience vote.

Neither would it be a good look for the Opposition to impose a binding vote, and then suffer the humiliation of MPs voting against it anyway, as some surely would.

And already merely raising the issue has shown how divisive it can be. The ALP’s national conference is a singular opportunity for its leader, Bill Shorten, to take centre stage with a developed plan for the future built around economic management. The issue of Palestine threatens to distract from that. Loading up the agenda with an unnecessary brawl around gay marriage is a further impediment.

For most of its first 60 or 70 years, Labor insisted on tight discipline. New members had to take “the pledge”, allowing for internal debate initially, but absolute adherence to the party platform in the end.

They wanted to resist factions going off on a frolic of their own, splitting the party into disparate groups.

But times have changed, and dramatically so.

Across the country, there is nothing like the support for the main parties that existed even 20 years ago. As voting patterns change, parties need to be more diverse. The broad church imperative grows, not diminishes.

That means, at times, foregoing discipline for flexibility; being more open to conscience votes, not less so.

Insisting that conscience votes should be limited to matters of religious belief – life and death matters like abortion and euthanasia – is far too limited. They should apply to a range of debates not directly religious, but more a matter of morality and, yes, conscience; issues where feelings are deeply personal and immutable, like surrogacy, adoption, stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified food.

A party that somehow embraces the views of Joe de Bruyn, Tanya Plibersek, David Feeney and Doug Cameron should see the wisdom of that.

Barrie Cassidy is the presenter of the ABC program Insiders. He writes a weekly column for The Drum.

When do you think marriage equality will be legalised in Australia?

This post originally appeared on The Drum.

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