Whose Conscience?

The ALP national conference a few weeks ago was dominated, for better or worse, by a single issue – same-sex marriage.  It is a deeply divisive one, but amidst the protests from churches and lobby groups on both sides of the debate, the ALP platform was altered to support gay marriage.

Perhaps more important for the immediate political climate was Julia Gillard’s accompanying motion, that the result of this platform change should not be enforced on any Labor MPs – instead they will have the liberty of a conscience vote.  That has all sorts of strategic implications for actually passing a law, but in the focus on those the justification for a conscience vote – any conscience vote – has been overlooked.

Then again, it might have been overlooked because it is startling insubstantial.  The only one, essentially, is that MPs have widely varying and strongly-held views on the matter and it would be unreasonable to force them to vote against said views.  It’s flimsy.  Politicians generally do have strongly-held views – that’s why they’re in politics – which they subject to the party line on all sorts of occasions: Malcolm Turnbull voted against a carbon price we know he is in favour of, and it is difficult to imagine (though not actually inconceivable) that every sitting member of the ALP was in favour of the Mineral Resource Rent Tax.


The point being that politicians’ personal views are not very relevant to anything.  That of course is an overstatement, because their views inform and provide a basis for the policies and positions which we elect them for.  But once they are elected, politicians are not exercising power on the basis of their personal whim – they are doing a job.  So if party policy is in favour of same-sex marriage, then those who are personally opposed to it should put their personal opinion to one side and do their job by supporting that policy in the Parliament, the same way the public servants who will ultimately be responsible for drafting same-sex marriage legislation will put their opinions to one side and do their job.

In almost any occupation, in fact, people have to put aside their opinions in their line of work all the time: a police officer (there were presumably some) who sympathised with the Occupy protesters, in any one of the numerous cities where they have now been detained or ejected, would have had to act nonetheless.  The option, generally speaking, is to resign - not something people want to do, but most understand that their job is set out by some higher authority, and that they can’t not do it just because they have a personal problem with the details of their instructions.

Strange, then, that the exception to that rule is parliamentarians who have their job set out by what is nominally the highest authority, the will of the people.  The cry is that it is unfair – inhuman – to force somebody to vote against their conscience.  But the content of Kelly O’Dwyer’s conscience was not on Liberal how-to-vote cards in Higgins last August, nor in her leaflets nor anywhere in Liberal policy.  In a Westminster democracy, our 150 MPs sit in Parliament to represent their electorate, not to pursue personal beliefs that may or may not be in alignment with those of the people who put them there.  When the Speaker addresses members in Parliament, he calls them by their constituency – that’s what they are there for.

So conscience votes are something of an aberration.  If there is a really compelling reason that a particular MP cannot bring him- or herself to help pass a piece of legislation – something like abortion law – then ignore the whip, break the party line and risk the consequence, the same way our Occupy-sympathising police officer would have to risk the consequence of failing to do his job properly.  But a formalised conscience vote makes almost no sense.  Members are not sent to the House because of their consciences; they should be left at the door.

All this is muddied by the fact that same-sex marriage hasn’t been on the agenda for either of the last two elections (more on mandates in another essay), but that shouldn’t obscure the essential fact that people generally vote for a party, not a person.  Even if MPs did declare their conscience on every issue before we went to the polling booths, the air would not be clear – a socially progressive voter supportive of same-sex marriage in Julia Gillard’s electorate, for example, would not change her vote to the Liberal Party just because Ms Gillard herself opposed (for whatever ill-explained reasons) marriage equality.

Which leaves us to conclude only that whole-party policy is generally what determines our votes – or, for the more cynical, our like or dislike for a party leader.  It doesn’t particularly matter because either way, the views of the particular person we elect to represent us are more or less entirely incidental.  That conclusion has applications outside the particular same-sex marriage issue.

Take England.  David Cameron ‘vetoed’ modifications to the EU’s Lisbon Treaty last week because, at heart, he was hostage to the demands of the Eurosceptic right wing of his party after they threatened the government with a rebellion in the House of Commons.  The significance of that veto, and whether it is good or bad for Britain, is hotly debated, but the fact that Cameron’s hand was to a great degree forced by those members of his party is not.  Britain’s approach and actions in negotiations that affected its national interest are precisely the things that should be democratically chosen; in this case they weren’t.

That claim takes a little elucidation, because the Eurosceptic belief (“Britain is better off outside the EU”) is less obviously personal and more policy-related than the same-sex marriage belief.  And so it is.  But what’s important in both cases is not the particular category of the belief (the line between a personal ‘conscience’ opinion and a public policy opinion isn’t that clear in any case) but that that particular belief probably wasn’t even publicly known in most cases and certainly wasn’t part of the reason the person was elected.  As such they have no place in the Parliament.

Cameron had to take a hard line in Brussels because of the makeup of his party.  And as much as the fact that there are 306 Conservative MPs in the Commons is representative of democratic will, the makeup of those members is not.  At the general election voters were not given a choice in each electorate between two Tory members, a Eurosceptic and a Europhile.  Those who wanted to vote for a (plausibly large) centre-right party simply did so.  The particular split of Europe-lovers and Europe-haters amongst the elected MPs was dictated by the vagaries of preselection and – probably more importantly – random chance in who decided that politics was for them.  Preselection and random chance are not what should be shaping diplomacy or policy.

The Eurosceptic position that pushed Cameron to the position he took was a policy position – but it wasn’t a Conservative policy position; it wasn’t in the set of policies which (more or less) were responsible for their election.  The Eurosceptic bloc exists arbitrarily without any relation to what people wanted or what they voted for.  It has no legitimate claim to wield any influence.  MPs who don’t personally like their leaders still support them in confidence motions; MPs who don’t like Europe should still toe the party line because that party line is the reason they are there – the reason they have the job.

That is the heart of the matter.  Sitting in Parliament is a job.  It’s an unusual one, and a particularly significant one – you are tasked with carrying out the will of the people, with formulating and implementing policies that will likely affect, in one way or another, millions of people.  Your job description gets rewritten every time you go to the polls, every time the country decides what it wants.  But it is a job, and personal whims – even when dressed up as the edicts of ‘conscience’ – have absolutely no place overriding the professed positions and the articulated guiding values that are the actual substance of politics.  Conscience votes and internal rebellions are wrong, not because of their results, but because their very occurrence is a subversion of the popular will which democracy is supposed to represent.

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