Pyne’s Conscience Wasn’t on the Ballot

vote boxWhat is it with the Coalition MPs, a question I put as a stalwart supporter of right-of-centre parties? But over the last couple of years I have watched the current Australian government and wondered, ‘What side of politics are some of these Liberal MPs on?’

Let me start with yesterday’s Coalition caucus meeting, which tackled a conscience vote on the issue of same-sex marriage, and approach that issue in a circuitous way.  Some readers may know that I am a vociferous opponent of bills of rights.  At their simplest, bills of rights undermine democracy.  They transfer decision-making power from  elected legislators to committees of unelected ex-lawyers — which is, in part, is why the Julian Burnsides of this world like these instruments so much.  The calculation is that you can get more of your first-order preferences satisfied by judges (whom you reckon more likely to agree with you about leaky boats, euthanasia, prisoners voting, etc etc) than you can by elected legislators responsible to their voters.

The very worst side of bills of rights was on display recently in the US Supreme Court case of Obergefell, the same-sex marriage case. By a 5-to-4 vote the top US judges over-ruled the legislatures representing some 320 million people.  Some of those legislatures had legalised same-sex marriage.  Some hadn’t.  Some top state judges had imposed it. But the reasoning of the majority five in Obergefell was appalling. They were just making it up, full stop.

Now, by way of contrast, look at Ireland, where same sex-marriage also was recently approved. In Ireland, however, they held a referendum and counted all voters as equal and worthy of heeding, not just a panel of nine senior jurists, and let everyone have a say.  It is blindingly obvious that the Irish went about this the right way and the Americans did not.  Indeed, the US procedure was little different from what you might expect of a modern aristocracy, where an elite makes and modifies the rules while the poor, benighted masses are disenfranchised.  The Supreme Court’s majority wasn’t interested in an honest interpretation of the US Constitution.  Today’s aristocracy has a law degree (and a decade or two making squillions at the bar) before moving to the Court.

That takes me to the minority of Liberal MPs, many of them in Cabinet, who were lobbying yesterday in the party room for a conscience vote.  Are you kidding me?  After all these egregious expenses revelations can any Australian think of a single reason why the voice of Christopher Pyne’s conscience is preferable to his or her own?  Or, looking across the Dispatch Box, Tony Burke’s conscience?  Or any member of Parliament’s conscience?

I didn’t vote for a candidate of my preferred party because I wanted to hand over my conscience to him or her.  (And, for what it’s worth, all that Edmund Burke guff in favour of conscience votes is massively over-sold and overlooks his later admission that the voters should have the last word on big issues.  The huge benefit of strong political parties is that you do NOT have all sorts of conscience votes and so ‘unknowable to the voters in advance’ outcomes.)  At the last election, I voted for a coherent platform of policies that struck me, on balance, as better than those of any other party.

When three dozen-odd Liberal MPs lobby for a conscience vote — one that would go against what the party policy offered voters going into the last election – they are lobbying for a bill of rights-type end-run around the voters.  Mr. Abbott said this would ‘dud’ the voters.  Mr. Abbott is exactly correct.  The Coalition’s Mssrs Pyne, Turnbull, Hunt, Frydenberg, et al, all those apparently pushing this line, were doing nothing less than asking for the party to indicate one thing before an election and do another after it.

The PM’s referendum offer is precisely how we ought to be moving.  This way your consciences will count for just as much as those of all these MPs who display such conscientious concern for taxpayer money when they  charter helicopters or fly their kids business-class to holiday destinations.  (I say that as someone who has only tasted business class once in his life, due to an unexpected upgrade when flights were rescheduled by an airline, thus one who hates his taxes underwriting these puffed-up global gallivanters.)

Be clear about this.  A conscience vote is less democratic than either (a) having a party state its policy before an election, winning, and implementing it or (b) holding a plebiscite in which the votes of all of us — politicians, judges, brickies and Centrelink sorts — all carry the same weight.  I’m for either.  I think Mr. Abbott’s referendum offer on this issue is a great idea.  In fact, if you’re against the idea then I’m keen to hear why you think some small handful of people’s consciences are better than your own.

I say all this as someone pretty confident that Australians will vote in favour of same-sex marriage when we do hold this referendum.  My visceral dislike of all of this is the holier-than-thou nature of people who either want judges deciding these issues, or of politicians who think they can dud those who voted for their party by dressing something up as a conscience vote.  Personally, I would think long and hard about voting for any Liberal MP who pushed this conscience vote misdirection play.

And all that brings me back to the current crop of Coalition MPs.  Where were their consciences on the Section 18C hate-speech issue?  This provision’s repeal was an explicit, endlessly repeated pre-election promise the party made to the voters.  If you want to talk about ‘dudding’ Liberal Party supporters this is as dudding as it gets.  Did Mr. Pyne exercise his conscience and step down from Cabinet? Mr. Turnbull? Mr. Hunt?  Not even close. Too much fun in business class perhaps.  Certainly they had no problem selling down the river those of us for whom the repeal of Section 18C was a core reason for voting Liberal.   But let me remind these MPs that just because a broken promise doesn’t bother the bien pensants in the ABC (who never wanted this law repealed) that doesn’t mean the betrayal doesn’t bother their core Liberal voters.

Here’s my guess:  Were you to drill doqn into the Coalition’s poor polling you would find an awful lot of disgruntled Liberal supporters.  They don’t want Mr. Turnbull, whose support comes from lefties who would never vote Liberal at any election.)  These people don’t want conscience votes to circumvent stances taken before the election.  No, they want a bit of right-of-centre conviction from supposedly Liberal MPs, not actions that suggest they are in the wrong political party.

So go ahead, announce a referendum on same-sex marriage. It’s the democratic thing to do and then, with that out of the way, start articulating and defending the policies you were elected to implement. Lower taxes.  Slash red tape and green tape. Voice right-of-centre, small government values at every opportunity.

(Here’s a special assignment for Mr. Pyne, the education minister.  Focus that conscience of yours on actually doing something to fix our universities. Pay a little attention and you might notice that tertiary institution bureaucracies keep inflating, the taxpayer keeps funding lefty social science bumpf, the salaries of vice-chancellors are reaching astronomical heights, and so on and so forth.)

Put these small-l measures to the Senate.  If they don’t pass, they don’t pass.  But we voters will have some idea where you stand. Do that and someone, somewhere, might actual take your consciences seriously.


James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland and the author of Democracy in Decline

  • Peter OBrien

    Spot on, James. The big disconnect in this gay marriage thing is that a majority of voters may support gay marriage when put to them in a poll but that does not mean they are clamouring for it as the ABC and other progressive commentators would have us believe. Most of them would not die in a ditch, metaphorically speaking, to achieve it. In modern parlance their position on gay marriage would amount to little more than ‘whatever!’. But many opponents do oppose it on grounds that are viscerally important to them. Should we weigh the opinion of the large middle ground, who just think ‘why not?’, as equal to the considered opinion of opponents. I accept that, ultimately, this is what will happen with a popular vote but at least all voters will have a chance to hear and evaluateboth sides of the story. It does not have to be rushed through by politicians voting their conscience.
    Proponents of gay marriage do themselves no favours when they cite possible suicides as a consequence of delay.
    That said, I would probably vote in favour.

  • Rob Brighton

    Well said.

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com

    I, for one – being a 75-year-old white male, married to the same woman for 51 years – find it difficult to believe that gay marriage would get up in a referendum. One need not be homophobic to oppose it. By all means, let gay people co-habit, be faithfull or promiscuous, just the same as straight people do but calling their union marriage degrades my marital status. It should be expected for all times that when anyone declares to being married, he/she is married to a member of the opposite sex. I strenuously object to having that certaintity taken away from me. It is odd that while gay people are inclined to claim a certain exceptionality compared to straight people, they wish to have their union denominated by the same term as the rest of us. Clearly, their union is not the same as that of straight people. They ought to coin a new term for their union to distinguish it from ours. Certainly, their union could have all the same social and legal trappings as marriage, but with a different name. Having said all that, I have no problem with gay people as long as they do not encroach on my turf.

  • aertdriessen@gmail.com

    I have absolutely nothing against gay marriage but I would vote against it because I just cannot see where couples in a gay relationship are denied any rights that any other couples have. As I understand it gays in a relationship have every right under the law as a any other couple, meaning married and de facto, whether heterosexual or same-sex. Why change the definition and meaning of a word that has stood the test of time for thousands of years simply to conform to ‘politically correct’ language? Thousands of heterosexual people live in happy and stable de facto relationships and are happy and proud to declare such if required. Why can’t gays follow suit?

    • PT

      It isn’t about legal rights. If it were, it would have stopped with civil unions. In Britain, civil unions provided all the legal rights of marriage. So why continue to push? There are 3 strands to this. The first are gay activists. They push for marriage primarily to show society regards gay relationships as being of equal validity and worth as a man and wife. For them, this is the ultimate in “acceptance”. Any counter argument is simply dismissed as regarding homosexuals as second class citizens. But it isn’t about legal rights, but making society validate homosexuality.

      “Progressivists” push it as destroying and remaking society. And a low cost way of doing it! This is just the latest fashion for them. Just as a “post modern Republic” was a while back, or trashing our heritage and puffing up Aboriginal ceremonies without bothering to understand them etc. This is where the likes of Pyne and Cameron come in. It’s seen as a cheap way of showing they’re “with it”.

      But this is not about human rights. Nor does it address why marriage is important. It is ultimately about enforcing acceptance of homosexuality. The motivations vary, but this is the end.

  • Jody

    When I think how we were all virtually ordered by the PC brigade to call our husbands and wives “partners” for the longest time – it turns out that those who were doing this language re-assignment were one and the same who secretly craved to be a husband or wife him/herself. Now, who’d have thought such hypocrisy could be a Leftist problem!!!? (Puts hand up!).

    I agree we need a national democratic vote on this issue – not a conscience vote for an oligarchical coup as happened in the USA. Strange isn’t it; the left makes a coup and that’s OK but it is the right which is regularly accused of being dictatorial. I guess that’s just a projection.

    Whatever the people decide I’ll support; but I won’t support a sleight-of-hand ‘conscience’ vote.

  • John Cook

    If same sex marriage is allowed, will gay twins be able to marry?

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com

    One further comment. Christine Forster, gay sister of PM Tony Abbott’s implied in her contribution in a Herald Sun article that the issue of same-sex marriage is of paramount importance to “millions of Australian families”. Given that even by the most generous estimates, the proportion of homosexual people in Australia is less than 5%, that would seem to be an colossal overstatement. Not unusual in the case of enthusiastic activists.

  • contact@overboots.com.au

    Well said James. For all these politicians wanting a conscience vote I would be interested in research into their campaign material at the last election.
    I have no memory of same sex marriage being an election issue and I am sure that most politicians’ pamphlets web sites etc. did not mention their stance

  • Jack Richards

    Same sex marriage is the least of my worries in life and I’ll definitely vote “NO” as will everyone I know. All these polls that tell us 75% desperately want it are just so much bullshit as far as I can see. Just remember that the same sort of polls predicted that Ed Milliband would be swept to power in Britain in a landslide and that Kevin Rudd had a real chance of hanging on to power here in 2013.

    No-one ever asks me in these polls. Maybe I just have all the wrong attitudes and they’re only after people with the right and politically correct ideas about things.

    I can think of nothing more loathsome and disgusting than the practices of homosexuals – especially the males. They try to pretend that its all about “Love” when it’s actually all about filthy deeds like anal intercourse (buggery) and male-on-male oral sex that leads to an endless epidemic of gonorrhoea and syphilis in the anus, eyes, mouth and throat as well as venereal warts and herpes in the same locations. Then there’s the crowning glory of AIDS that is almost singularly transmitted by anal intercourse, the practice of sodomy.

    It is disgusting. They are disgusting. There is no way these preening poofters should be allowed to insult and demean the institution of marriage.

    • bemartin39@bigpond.com

      While many will whole heartedly agree with this comment, the tone of it and the describing of the unsavoury details of homosexual sex tends to denigrate the case against gay marriage.

      • Jack Richards

        The unsavoury details ARE needed. It’s the TRUTH. It’s what they do and what they suffer from – and we can include the faecal incontinence they get from having their anal sphincters stretched beyond breaking point and the endless urinary tract infections from getting shit up their dicks. Then there’s the lovely ailment of pelvic infections caused by faecal matter escaping into the pelvic cavity from fissures and fistulas in the rectum and colon.

        This is what decent people are being asked to legitimise as just a different take on marriage between a man and a woman.

        I am not concerned about political correctness or the sensitivities of milk-sops and chinless wonders who can’t handle the truth.

        • PT

          I have to say I agree. In the Anglo legal system it was buggery rather than homosexuality that was a crime. Noel Coward (who was homosexual) referred to it as that “disgusting thing they do”! There’s hardly “conjugal rights” in a “gay marriage” without it! I have a personal disgust at what they do (no doubt many who “support” “gay marriage” do as Well) but ultimately we need to use rational arguments. Homosexual sex is sterile. Heterosexual sex (unless the partners are overage) isn’t. This is an obvious distinction. This is why denying it or sweeping it under the carpet suddenly becomes an issue!
          Ultimately homosexuality cannot produce new life. That’s the ultimate reality. I keep thinking of “The Life of Brian” when I think of SSM advocates! It’s really about enforcing acceptance and not “rights”.

  • xtos1961

    In the US, success on the gay marriage issue appears to reflect little more than a desire for bragging rights, the appearance of the dawning of an age more tolerant than that of our parents, and an excuse to throw an opulent party. It is as if we have allowed the baby his/her bottle, while denying same to an adult.

  • dsh2@bigpond.com

    Whilst I cannot in any way disagree with concerns about the activities and consequences of homosexual ‘activities’, I am more concerned about James Allan’s very accurate criticisms of the Coalition’s ineptitude to prosecute their case, or even appear to believe in their case as conservatives. The rank and file of the Coalition supporters are heartily fed up with the weak-kneed behaviour of a great many of their elected representatives – we did not vote for them to be not much different to the Greeny-left which they replaced as a Government. Whilst it is easy to take supporters for granted there are many who are swinging voters and, if they feel betrayed as many of us do, they will vote for the devil out of sheer cussedness.

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