A Conscience Vote?

2 Jun

I am puzzled by the idea of a conscience vote: simply the idea that somehow we can define some matters as worthy to be decided ‘on conscience’ while all other matters are decided by —well, what?

The Australian Parliament is currently dealing with, or perhaps not dealing with, the issue of marriage equality—the proposed change to the marriage act that would allow persons of the same gender to marry. The government parties are presently tied to a ‘party line’  (against change to the law) and there are many who want to break free from this position, demanding a ‘conscience vote’. Paradoxically, the Labour opposition currently allows a conscience vote and some in their number want to change that, to adopt a party line (in favour of changing the law).

This idea of a conscience vote is very puzzling indeed.

The context is important. Clearly one crucial element is the idea that conscience is individual. Two people may ‘conscientiously’ hold differing opinions on a matter and in a mature, liberal democracy the respect of such honestly held opinions is a crucial tenet. Indeed I would say it is part of the bedrock of a democracy. Freedom of thought, opinion and values is inherent in a liberal society. John Stuart Mill argued that it is the duty of government to defend the liberty of individuals, especially of the minority opinion who may easily be swamped, crowded out or indeed silenced by the majority. This is why we need a diversity of media ownership. Those who argue for ‘freedom’ of ownership of the mass media by one huge corporation have misplaced this central democratic ideal. But I digress.

Conscience is individual. If we call something a matter of conscience we mean that each person must formulate their own position according convictions, their own honestly held views. To enable the development of such thought and conviction is a vital part of education, in all its forms, perhaps most especially in the home. The opposite of such education is propaganda and indoctrination. Sadly there are many situations where education, especially moral and religious education, has adopted these forms. In so doing, rather than enabling the growth of conscience these approaches stunt the person’s capacity to make mature decisions. One wonders if that is what was in fact intended. (I write here in the past tense, hoping that in fact we have moved beyond such approaches. But I know we haven’t.)

If conscience is individual, then in a political party the question is how can anyone vote according to the party line. The answer is that people form a conscientious decision to belong to and follow the platform of a party. To make things workable, they agree to bind themselves to the party line. That seems ok, until we then come to the idea of ‘a conscience vote’. On some matters, very occasionally, the Prime Minister will choose that a particular decision before the parliament will be ‘a conscience vote’. First, it is strange that it is one person’s call, alone, as to which matters will be of this nature. In some other contexts, that might be a group decision—such as being made by the party room, the ‘caucus’. That happened in the last government. It seems not to be so with this current situation.

Then we may wonder how it is determined which matters are ‘conscience’ matters. From my memory, the few times I have known such a vote to occur it has always been about matters of sexuality or reproductive technology. How amazing that such things as the decision to go to war is not a matter of conscience! Even more amazing is the fact that our parliament has not decided in favour of the last few times we have gone to war!

What makes any matter a matter of conscience? Surely it is not that it’s about sex: who can have sex with whom, in what circumstances and with what consequences! No, it is not the subject matter so much as the fact of diverse social opinion matched with a conviction that the deeply held views are not easily going to find consensus. So the ‘conscience vote’ seems to be a way to resolve a deeply divisive issue. In other words, it’s not really about conscience at all: it’s simply a political mechanism to get something done, to make some progress.

Again, how amazing that we are unable to engage with values for their own sake. I guess I am just appalled that so little of our political debate and rhetoric is actually about the values and vision that politicians do actually hold. Most of them, I am sure, are not power hungry people. They go into politics because they believe in something. Yet so quickly that is lost, in the politics of it all.

I have been very interested in the idea of convictions. In my teaching this semester, on ‘Lives of Faith’, we have followed James McClendon’s methodology for theology which centres on ‘the convictions of a convictional community’. Convictions, he argues, are the substance of character. The study of biographies is part of his quest for ‘an ethics of character’.

It is worth asking, then, what are the convictions that determine the lives and life-stances of our political leaders? What convictions shape their ‘conscience’ votes?

I remember reading a study of the place of religion in our federal parliament, by Marion Maddox. She’s written a number of things in this area. One study, Marion Maddox, For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, Department of the Parliamentary Library, 2001, includes interviews with members of the second Howard government. A younger Tony Abbott is quoted as making the following astonishing claim:   he has ‘never made a political decision on religious grounds. And I wouldn’t.’ (p133).

I’ve long wondered about that claim: how is it possible for a person to maintain a total separation of their religious convictions and their political judgments or decisions? Of course, if Mr Abbott meant that he has never made a decision on purely religious (in the sense of sectarian) interests, that is an admirable claim. But if he means that his faith does not shape, and in an important sense determine his political decisions, I find that very disturbing indeed.

In short, my view is that every political decision should be a matter of conscience and no votes should be separated out as ‘conscience votes’. If a person is unable to vote conscientiously for what is proposed, they must either vote against (if necessary, crossing the floor to do so) or abstain and notify their constituents that they have done so and why.   I have done this in various groups and councils of which I have been a part, at times. At other times I have convinced myself that my conscientious commitment to the group process allows me to support matters or people in spite of my private reservations. Often I have regretted that compromise.

I think there must be a stronger requirement for and permission of conscience voting in all sorts of situations. A community that is unable to deal with difference and minority opinions is not a very strong community at all. Conversely, a community that welcomes such diversity and allows voting in this way grows in depth and character. Let’s see if we can’t do that!


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