Conference turns to conscience on conjugality
John Howard said it helped MPs “reflect upon their experiences, values”. Kim Beazley said it was “a wonderful thing” to do. The late John Button said, “Let the winds of principle blow through the House.”
They were talking about exercising a parliamentary conscience vote and were so enthusiastic for it you would imagine conscience votes happen all the time.
But they don’t, for reasons shared by leaders of all major parties. In fact they are rare. By my calculation there were 30 conscience votes in Federal Parliament between 1955 and now. (The always-splendid Parliamentary Library has this research paper.) Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants to make that tally 31 by tomorrow, asking the ALP national conference in Sydney for a conscience vote on gay marriage.
The Labor left will fight this, arguing that equality of any sort - whether in marriage rights or elsewhere - should be an automatic priority for MPs, not a matter of conscience. Other Labor MPs will regard this as a narrow perspective on the matter.
The left wants conference to change the platform to endorse same sex marriage, and then order Labor MPs to vote for legislation delivering it.
Further, argues the left’s Andrew Barr, deputy Labor leader in the ACT who will move that motion, conscience votes are for life and death matters.
Usually they have been, on such issues as abortion and controversial medical research, but not always.
This means the conference debate over when and how to invoke a conscience vote - making MPs free from the direction of party leaders - might become as vigorous as the one on the central issue of same sex marriage.
And it could mean that a small but significant dent in the regimentation of MPs will follow any agreement on a free vote. There could be demands for similar treatment of other issues such as going to war, or even to insisting on a Budget surplus.
Allowing MPs in all parties to vote according to their better judgements rather than the instructions issued by the party leadership might catch on. It might become as popular as Howard, Beazley and Button indicated it should, at the cost of the tight control all party executives usually insist on.
These free votes are often not all that free. In 2000 there was pressure from conservative union leader Joe de Bruyn for a conscience vote on provision of IVF services to lesbians. But it didn’t happen.
However, de Bruyn was able to use the huge numbers of his shop assistants’ union to heavy some MPs - and tried to do the same on the ALP federal executive - to back his proposal.
Prime Ministers usually only agree to free voters when they are in a bit of trouble, perhaps from a strong lobby within their own party. That is the case with Julia Gillard.
The objective usually is to prevent an open brawl within the governing party which could lead to MPs defying the leader and crossing the floor in a vote. That could happen to Gillard on same sex marriage.
A conscience vote absolves leaders of having to provide leadership.
Or it could be a tactic to exploit divisions within an Opposition party. Opposition MPs who would not dare contradict the leader in a fixed vote might feel more relaxed if it was declared a matter of conscience.
But Julia Gillard will have to deal with her own party first and if she loses on Saturday it will be a mixed outcome.
She personally supports same sex marriage, but she would not enjoy being rebuffed by her party conference.
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