Conscience votes are rare, and usually involve controversial issues of a moral or ethical nature. Within the context of party politics, a conscience vote is a risk.
In a hung parliament, a conscience vote can be a losing vote. With tissue-thin majorities, parties need certainty. Even with a solid majority, too many conscience votes undermines the party's image and appeal: why support a party that allows its elected representatives to vote against the party line? And to vote against your party when no conscience vote has been granted is to risk being expelled from the party, if you're an ALP member. The penalties for a Liberal crossing the floor are slightly less dramatic, yet still a deterrent.
The reality is that for most politicians, there's no need to decide issues one-by-one. In many cases, there's little need to understand the issues. Just vote the party line, regurgitate the party talking points, and no-one gets hurt. Julie Bishop's ridiculous performance on Ten Breakfast this week in response to the Carbon Tax is a fine example:
JULIE BISHOP We can deliver tax cuts by making savings. We’ll ensure that pensioners get a fair go. You don’t have to hit them with a job destroying tax in order to do that.
PAUL HENRY Will you take the money away that they have been given to compensate them for the carbon tax?
JULIE BISHOP If there is no carbon tax they won’t need that compensation, but we'll ensure there are tax cuts and that pensioners get a fair go.
PAUL HENRY But you will take that money away from them?
JULIE BISHOP They won’t need the compensation if they are not hit with a carbon tax.
PAUL HENRY So you’ll take it away from them?
JULIE BISHOP But we’ll have tax cuts. Well we won’t need the compensation for a tax that isn’t there. I mean that is just the con isn’t it? To say that you put a tax on and then you give them compensation.
PAUL HENRY And then you’ll take compensation off them.
JULIE BISHOP There will be tax cuts.
PAUL HENRY You’ll take the money off them won’t you, that will come away.
JULIE BISHOP There will be tax cuts but they won’t be paid for by the carbon tax.
PAUL HENRY I love you Julie, I just do!
What about when your conscience is in conflict with the policies you're required to support, crossing the floor is not an option?
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman is on record as supporting same sax marriage, yet the LNP would not permit a conscience vote on amending or repealing the Civil Partnerships legislation. Newman is the leader of the Parliamentary LNP in Queensland, and even he is bound by the party machine, lead by Christian conservative Bruce McIver. Did the voters of Ashgrove elect Campbell Newman, or did they elect the LNP?
Malcolm Turnbull, in a curious bout of speech followed by duelling op-eds with Andrew Bolt, has urged his party leader to allow a conscience vote at federal level on the same issue. The answer from Tony Abbott is, as usual, a flat 'no'. As the Prime Minister has allowed Labor MPs a conscience vote, it's unlikely that the current same sex marriage bills would succeed; the ALP members may cross the floor, and the Liberals may not. Turnbull, and probably others, will be required to vote against their consciences.
If we had a free vote on the matter and, subject always to the wording of the Bill, I would vote to recognise same sex couples’ unions as a marriage. For reasons I have laid out I find the arguments against it unpersuasive.
Meanwhile, in Lyne and New England and Kennedy and Denison, where the sitting members are Independents, every vote is a conscience vote...or would be, if deals hadn't been done to form the minority ALP Government. In Lyne and New England, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor are struggling.
Why? Is it because they've lost their genuine independence, or because they sided with the dreaded ALP, and that's a bridge too far for voters in these traditional National Party seats. Perhaps it's just part of the national malaise, the all-pervasive disillusionment with politics and politicians of all flavours.
On marriage equality, Rob Oakeshott will vote to represent his electorate, as will Tony Windsor:
Looming challenges for the self-described socially progressive Mr Oakeshott include the gay marriage vote.He said that his electorate has made it clear it thinks marriage is between a man and a woman, and therefore he would vote against reforms in favour of gay marriage unless lobbyists could somehow change his community's sentiment.
In a traditional parliament, with a majority, a minority and a handful of others, Independents would be free to vote with their consciences, or with the will of their electorate, on every bill. They don't have the luxury of a party machine to "help" them form opinions and provide catchy phrases to use when interviews get tricky, yet they enjoy the freedom to vote independently.
Political parties are part of our system of government. The decision to grant or deny a conscience vote is an indicator of a leader's willingness to risk surrendering power.I wonder if those leaders and party officials who deny their MPs the liberty to vote their conscience have consciences themselves.
“Congratulations. You have met your conscience. In my experience, the world is divided between those who have one and those who don't. And the ones with one are divided into those who will act on their conscience and those who won't. Those who will are, I'm afraid, the smallest category. They will *jeito*. It's Brazilian Portuguese. It means to find a way to get something done, no matter what the obstacles.”
― Jean Ferris, Twice Upon a Marigold