by News WeeklyNews Weekly
The ALP and the embryonic stem cell issue
, April 20, 2002
Simon Crean's decision to allow a conscience vote to ALP members of parliament on the issue of embryonic stem cell laws is a further indication of the new leader's preparedness to be pragmatic and flexible.
Not only did Crean pre-empt Prime Minister John Howard in allowing his own backbench a similar freedom, but it was another slap in the face for the leadership style of Crean's predecessor, Kim Beazley.
Of course, no one should be under any illusion that the vast majority of the Federal Labor Party will mindlessly ignore all sensible contary arguements and any fears about the precedent being set by the green light to human embryonic research in Australia.Utilitarian approach
The attitude of the Labor Party as a whole is a completely utilitarian approach to the issue.
And the push to have open slather scientific research with virtually no government interference was driven by State Labor Premiers, and by Bob Carr and Peter Beattie in particular.
Nevertheless, there is still a substantial number of ALP members (both state and federal) who hold deep personal convictions about the sanctity of life and who are philosophically opposed to any laws which dehumanise and destroy life.
In the Federal Parliament it is estimated that as many as 20 Labor MPs out of a Caucus of 83 fit into this category. Admittedly this is a disturbingly low number in a party which originated from mainly Catholic working class roots, but it is a substantial minority nevertheless.The Crean decision was also made after a blunt warning from right-wing union leader Joe de Bruyn to the federal secretary Geoff Walsh that his union would have to consider reveiwing its substantial financial commitment to the party if its affiliated members did not get a conscience vote.
When former Opposition Leader Kim Beazley was faced with a related quandry - over the granting of rights for IVF treatment to lesbians and single women - Beazley adopted the line of the left-wing feminists in the party and refused to countenance a conscience vote. That fateful decision made in a rush of blood during the Hobart Conference in August of 2000 probably did more to undermine Beazley's respect with his strongest supporters in the Caucus than any other decision.
For those who may have forgotten the circumstances, Prime Minister Howard threw a political hand grenade in the middle of the Hobart conference when he forshawdowed that he would legislate to oppose a recently granted right (granted by a Victorian court) for lesbians and single women to have access to IVF treatment. The issue had the potential to seriously divide the ALP.
However, Beazley did not wait to consider a response and, under pressure from his health spokeswoman Jenny Macklin, declared Labor would oppose Howard's proposed legislation.
It made Beazley appear weak and socially conservative ALP MPs could only conclude that Beazley was either not as conservative as he claimed to be, or that he was going to be easily bullied by factional heavyweights on the left and centre of the party.
Beazley argued at the time that if the courts had granted a new right to a group of people (in this case lesbians and single women) the Australian Labor Party had no business in trying to reverse that right in the Parliament.
On a purely practical level though it showed Beazley to be way out of touch with the majority of socially conservative Australian voters who believe that, ideally, children should have both a mother and father. There were, and still are, ALP members deeply opposed to such a move who desperately want the freedom to object when it came to a vote in Parliament.
Labor MPs are only allowed the unique conscience vote on abortion - the quid pro quo for having the distastrous "pro-abortion clause" on the Labor Party's official platform. Pro-life Labor MPs argue that this special conscience vote should extend to all life matters - including IVF treatment and stem cell research.
Mr de Bruyn led the outcry over Beazley's decision to lock in the Labor Party behind IVF for lesbians, but this time around he has come away with a significant victory. Mr de Bruyn's union - the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association or SDA - is the largest Labor Party affiliated union and former SDA union officials who are now in parliament make up one of the most powerful sub-factions in the Federal Labor Party.
While Mr de Bruyn succeeded in getting Crean to agree to the conscience vote he has also written to the ALP national executive to have the conscience vote further extended to include a range of other issues including: reducing the age of consent for sexual activity, homosexual marriages, and permitting same-sex couples to adopt children.
Whether the new look Labor Party is prepared to go that far is some time away from being decided.