Federal Labor MP for Melbourne Ports Michael Danby has justified his decision to abstain from last September’s marriage equality vote and subsequent refusal for more than six months to reiterate his support for the issue as “political gravitas or timing”.
Danby did not vote at all when Labor’s marriage equality bill was put to the House of Representatives last year despite indicating his support for equality before the 2010 election, angering many in the LGBTI community. Following the vote he was silent about his reasons until later this year, ignoring numerous requests for comment by the Star Observer.
Danby broke his silence and clarified the issue publicly in an interview on LGBTI radio station JOY 94.9 on May 25. He stated he would support any future marriage equality bills and justified his abstention under the conscience vote granted Labor members, saying that “my assessment was it wasn’t going to get through”.
The MP has now gone into detail with the Star Observer about his refusal to comment on the abstention for the first time, justifying his actions in terms of the current political climate.
“It’s the worst political crisis and ugliest Parliament I’ve ever been in, and there are lots of issues that people are involved in…the leadership in particular, and they took priority over some other issues. I can’t apologise for it because that’s just what happened,” Danby said, explaining Labor’s internal leadership struggles prevented him from engaging with the LGBTI community.
“It’s not that I didn’t have time, I prioritised what I thought was important. Survival of the government was — it was obvious at any minute that we could go under, and I was concentrating on stability inside the government and on other issues, which didn’t give this the priority that people in the LGBTI community wanted.”
A month prior to his interview on JOY 94.9 Danby sent a letter to a constituent named Tony Pitman explaining he abstained on the basis of “fairness,” not political manoeuvring.
In the letter dated April 11 he wrote that “I abstained from the vote on that bill because I did not think it fair that half the Parliament — the Labor Party — had a free vote, while the other half — the Coalition parties — were ordered by their Leader Mr Abbott to vote against the bill”.
Danby told the Star Observer his decision was primarily about politics.
“You can call it political expediency, I call it political gravitas or timing. You can have people who make their views — it just has to be done now or whatever — as clear as they like…it’s the MPs who understand how Parliament works who are the best judge of that,” Danby said.
“And I’m not saying we’re any superior breed but you have to make a judgement in our own circumstances and in this parliament, with Tony Abbot breathing down our necks and leadership challenges, I made the judgement that this was not going through.”
When the Star Observer asked what prompted his eventual decision to comment on the radio, Danby offered the following:
“When it became clear to me that people in the community were agitated about this…I thought, let’s strike while the iron’s hot. The issue was quiet, over, and it was time to make clear to people where I stood.”
Marriage equality groups and the Star Observer have lobbied Danby since the vote to comment on his decision. Although the statement on JOY 94.9 came just days after then-backbencher Kevin Rudd announced his support for marriage equality, Danby said his actions were “in spite of” Rudd, not because of him.
Danby said most of the lobbying on marriage equality in his electorate was in support, but said he was also being lobbied to oppose it by some religious groups, notably the Greek Orthodox community. However, Danby reiterated his support for marriage equality going into this year’s federal election, promising again to vote for future bills. He said he believes Labor would be able to pass marriage equality in the next government if elected.
“Now the opportunity is for Labor being elected and holding people like me to our pledges, and it’ll happen,” he said.
Danby is facing openly gay Liberal Party candidate and marriage equality supporter Kevin Ekendahl in the election, who he defeated in 2010 with an increased majority.