SUBJECTS: Australians vote ‘yes’ to marriage equality, Bennelong by-election

FRAN KELLY: Tony Burke welcome to Breakfast.


KELLY:  Of the 17 ‘no’ seats, 11 of them were Labor seats. In your electorate of Watson it was a 30 per cent vote for ‘yes’ only. You had the second highest ‘no’ vote in the country. But you will vote ‘yes’ in the parliament for same sex marriage?

BURKE: That’s right.

KELLY: Why are you comfortable doing that?

BURKE:  When I made the announcement that that’s what I would do, which was before the last election, I signalled at the time that my view without the benefit of this survey, that my electorate would have one of the strongest ‘no’ votes in the country. That’s turned out to be replicated in this. But I made the commitment, I went to an election with a pretty fierce ‘no’ campaign locally saying that people shouldn’t vote me for on that basis and so there will be some people who will be disappointed locally but I don’t think anyone will be surprised. This was very strongly aired at the last election in my part of Sydney and that’s similar for the other people who you named that for all of us we went to the election with an election commitment that we would vote yes on this. There’s not many times as a local member of Parliament that you get to make an election commitment that is entirely your own call. 

There’s no collective decision with the party, you make your decision on a conscience vote as to what you will commit to, and having made those commitments, I don’t think any of us will be departing from it, nor would many people in the electorate expect us to be breaking these commitments that have been made.

KELLY: So your point is you didn’t try to hide this, hide where you stand on this issue during the election and yet you were elected anyway? You got a significant majority 17 per cent I think in the seat of Watson, so you don’t fear that the electorate will abandon you because of this, you don’t fear a backlash at the ballot box?

BURKE:  Oh there’s already been a backlash. That happened at the last election. What people know from something like this because the sorts of issues that I’ve often found myself in the middle of it have been where it’s been people in my electorate who have been marginalised or pushed into a corner or vilified on the basis of race or religion. There’s a consistency in what they seem to be doing here, that when somebody is being vilified or marginalised, then I’ll stand up for them and this issue is no different.

KELLY: Not everyone is taking the same view as you,  Liberal MP Craig Kelly, he supported the ‘no’ campaign but in his seat there was a 58 per cent majority for ‘yes’, so he says his vote will reflect the vote of his seat. Some see that as more honourable position than the positon that you and Jason Clare and Chris Bowen and others have taken.

BURKE: Yeah it’s funny, you’re either being dishonourable because you’re breaking an election commitment or you’re dishonourable because you’re following the polls. There will always be an argument no matter what you do. I do think some of those members of the Liberal Party are in a different position given we always argued against this process. We argued against it on the basis of the hate speech that would be unleased during it. They argued in favour of it. Having invented this process it’s a little bit more difficult for them to walk away from it.

KELLY: Well Tony Abbott is in the same position. His electorate voted I think  75 per cent for a ‘yes’.

BURKE: Look, on a conscience vote, I’m not going to provide free advice for every body on what to do. Certainly for me, there is absolutely no doubt it would be completely inconsistent. Not only with my commitments that I made at the last election but also with the different issues in terms of racial discrimination and discrimination against people based on their faith if I were then to not vote to fix an area of discrimination that we currently have in the Marriage Act.

KELLY: As I’ve mentioned, some of the votes in these ‘no’ seats  were very extreme, only 30 per cent of people in your electorate voted ‘yes’ that’s a strong ‘no’ vote. It was even stronger in Jason Clare’s seat of Blaxland and in a number of those seats. Which shows there’s quite a disconnect, isn’t there? Between the social views held by Labor MP’s and the views held by people throughout Western Sydney. Has Labor somehow lost touch with the heartland, is this what it reflects?

BURKE:  What’s rare is on a social issue to be able to have a seat by seat count. That doesn’t happen very often. But certainly when we’ve had some horrible polls about people wanting to ban Muslim immigration for example and I’ve never taken any account of those polls. I’ve always gone on the human rights argument, but there will be some seats that returned a strong yes vote that would have voted yes on those sorts of polls as well. So in different parts of Australia I think people are more conscious of different forms of discrimination and that’s no surprise, but for our electorates I don’t think there will be anyone in the electorates who are surprised by the fact that we are doing exactly what we said we would do at the last election.

KELLY: These strong ‘no’ votes in these few electorates but quarantined to certain parts of the country; certain parts of Melbourne and Sydney in particular shows too there’s a disconnect between some of those communities and the broader communities. Does more effort need to be made to address that?

BURKE: In terms of effort made to link communities across the country there is always more need to address that. And there is no doubt that people are much less likely to be involved in any form of discrimination when they know the people who are the targets of it. There is no doubt about that at all.

KELLY: Your listening to RM Breakfast. Our guest is Tony Burke he’s the Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives. The hard work begins for the Parliamentarians now in legislating the Smith Bill which will have the second reading speech in the Senate today. How mindful do you believe the Parliament should be of the almost 5 million people who voted ‘no’ in this debate?

BURKE: Well I don’t think anyone can use this vote as a mandate for winding back anti-discrimination law. I found it quite bizarre some of the arguments that have been put. When I Kevin Andrews yesterday talk about an Islamic baker being able to refuse to make a Jewish wedding cake, I was horrified. I was in Palestine and Israel last week and I saw a couple of examples of some pretty awful religious bigotry but even they weren’t doing what Kevin Andrews advocated yesterday. So I think anyone who’s got it in their head that you can use this vote to wind back antidiscrimination law has missed the entire point of the campaign. It is important that religious ministers, for example and religious celebrants are able to have the protections that they need to be able to marry according to their faith.

KELLY: What about civil celebrants? George Brandis wants to broaden the religious protections there to allow all civil celebrants who are opposed to same sex marriage to be protected.

BURKE: Some religious faiths use civil celebrants. They don’t have a formal religious system in terms of how their qualified and so, I understand the Dean, I forget which faith it is but the Dean Smith bill as I understand it already deals with that. My general rule on all of this as a Member of the House of Representatives will be those issues will be debated out in the Senate.  When the bill comes to the House of Representatives, my instincts and the instincts of a lot of us will be to have a view that the amendments happened in the Senate and we’ll just deal with the bill as it come to us. The one risk in all of this is if the House of Representative decides on a different set of amendments to the Senate, you’ll end up with a dispute between the Houses and after all of this if we end up with the Senate voting for marriage equality, the Reps voting for a different form of marriage equality and nothing happening as a result, I don’t think the Australian people will be in a forgiving mood. So my view, the Senate will have a detailed debate and will deal with amendments, once they’ve dealt with the bill, my view in the House of Representatives, unless there is something extraordinary to resist the amendments brought forward in the House

KELLY: Can I just move to another question briefly if you would, Kristina Keneally, Labor’s candidate in Bennelong against John Alexander who had to resign over dual citizenship; she was exonerated in ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) in terms of allegations around associations with Eddie Obeid. But the odour of that nevertheless and the failure of  the State Labor Government that she led, is that effect still there in NSW? How does she get over that?

BURKE: Kristina is popular. There is no doubt that when the State government took a big hit and it was clear we were heading for that even before Kristina Keneally became Premier. But as Quentin Dempster tweeted  out yesterday that Kristina gave critical evidence to the Independent Commission Against Corruption that was quite important in fixing a whole lot of these issues and making sure that justice was done. I think the desperation with the way they have tried to smear Kristina Keneally only shows what a popular starting point she’s coming from and for the  Prime Minister to be involved in that the way he has been I think reflects more on him than it does on Kristina.

KELLY: Tony Burke, thank you very much for joining us.

BURKE: Great to talk Fran.

Tony Burke