What 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