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July 03rd 2012 print

James Allan

Conscience vote subterfuge

A ‘conscience vote’ sounds so reasonable, so measured, so above all the partisan politicking. That’s the subtle suggestion the emotively appealing phrase throws up, and it’s garbage.


Who can be against the idea of a conscience vote in Parliament?


After all, it sounds so reasonable, so measured, so above all the partisan politicking. There is the subtle suggestion that by allowing every MP to consult his or her own moral antennae the voters, the people who put them there, will get the best possible outcome.

That’s the subtle suggestion the emotively appealing phrase ‘conscience vote’ throws up, and it’s garbage. Whether a conscience vote is desirable or not is wholly dependent on the particular circumstances.

Here’s what I mean. In a representative democracy such as ours we elect people, usually from political parties with stated manifestos and stated policies and goals, to represent us, the voters. Unlike Switzerland and California, where there’s a hefty dollop of direct democracy – of voters deciding specific policies and even enacting legislation based on binding referenda – we in Australia limit that sort of direct voter input to ‘changing the Constitution’ questions where it has served us very well indeed by foreclosing EU-style ‘political elites ignore and trump the voters’ responses.

But other than when it comes to constitutional amendments we’re a Westminster parliamentary democracy. We vote for MPs who represent us.

Now with strong political parties and a norm of majoritarian government that usually means the winning party more-or-less does what it signalled it would do before the last election. If you don’t like that, then vote against that party next election. If circumstances alter and this winning party does something it didn’t signal, you have the same possible remedy as a voter.

Against that normal backdrop you sometimes get conscience votes when an issue arises that no one much thought about before the last election, maybe some private member decides he or she wants to make spanking one’s kids illegal. If the issue is not seen as related to core party policies, and it wasn’t part of the pre-election commitments, you occasionally might find that it’s been made a conscience vote matter. It’s left to the MPs to decide for themselves.

And in that sort of situation, this sort of vote seems fine. No one misled any voters because it was never really on the radar.

Now consider a different scenario. In this scenario the leader of the political party that ultimately prevails in some election promises the voters before that election that her party, if successful, will not do something. Voters rely on this promise.

Then a year down the track the leader, now Prime Minister, offers a conscience vote of MPs on that same matter. How can that be characterised as anything other than misleading the electorate, otherwise known as prevaricating (in chardonnay-sipping inner city electorates) or lying (in more salubrious surrounds)?

You see their consciences as MPs may be determinative for them but the 99 percent of us who are mere voters are blocked out of the equation. Before the election we were given information that for some us would have been determinative in how we voted. So in describing this scenario accurately it would be more like ‘a conscience vote for 0.00000001 percent of Australians’.

And it wouldn’t matter if the topic were same-sex marriage or a carbon tax. If an explicit promise was made before the election by the now Prime Minister then draping a possible change of mind in the clothes of a conscience vote does not magically and mysteriously and in some ineffable way somehow lessen the core breach of trust.

If you want to change your mind on a policy then do so the way John Howard did with the GST. Go to the next election with that change as an explicit party platform and let the voters have their say.

And none of this core level deception of the voters is ameliorated by pointing to the fact of a hung parliament or minority government. Nor is it fixed by suggesting that all MPs always have room, as individuals, to draw lines in the sand based on their own consciences (an untruth, as it happens, as far as the Labor Party is concerned where expulsion awaits the MP who defies the Party).

First off, this is nothing like that scenario but rather a party orchestrated fraud on those who voted at the last election. And secondly, respect for democracy is ultimately about respect for the views of the majority of voters, not about doing Clintonesque legalistic end runs around those views.

When it comes to conscience votes in Parliament students at universities are often told about Edmund Burke’s famous speech to his electors in Bristol in 1774 when he warned them that he would listen to them, but ultimately he would vote his conscience. Of course that was before party politics had taken over and so there was nothing equivalent then to a major party leader lying to the voters. But just as much to the point, and what few students are also told, is that in the next election of 1780 Burke lost his seat. When seeking another one later he said ‘the people are the masters’.

We’ve all known for some time that Messrs Oakeshott and Windsor felt more at home with the early Burke’s views rather than his later ones, though I’m confident a similar fate awaits them both at the polls. But now we find Prime Minister Gillard and the Labor Party are adding same sex marriage sophistries to carbon tax contempt of the voters.

If you believe in democratic decision-making then you believe in it even when you think the majority is wrong. You have the confidence to put your views to the voters and live with the majority’s decision.

A conscience vote of MPs to mask reneging on an election promise is not the same thing.