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Conscience Votes

September 4, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Two recent issues were voted on by our parliament as conscience votes: same-sex marriage and the minimum age to buy alcohol. In both cases the outcome was what I thought it should be so maybe I’m a bit biased, but it seems to me that whatever the result, the process itself was a good one and maybe one which should be used more often, maybe even for all votes.

The way politicians voted in both cases showed little connection to party policies. For example, in both cases the prime minister and the leader of the opposition voted the same way and (in my opinion) the correct way: for same-sex marriage and against increasing the age required to buy alcohol. Not only that but some quite conservative MPs, such as John Banks, also voted the right way.

There was another interesting phenomenon too: some people actually changed their minds! Yes, politicians actually listened to the facts and changed the way they initially intended to vote. The best example was the National MP for Hunua, Paul Hutchison, had told a newspaper earlier that he would oppose the measure but after discussing it with the bill’s sponsor, Labour MP Louisa Wall, he said: “I cannot construct a strong enough intellectual, moral, health or even spiritual argument against it.”

Unfortunately it also worked the other way and some people voted based on bigoted superstitious views. The Labour MP for Mangere, Su’a William Sio, said he would oppose the legislation on the behalf of his constituents because “This is a matter that is very sensitive for members of my constituency – within the Pacific and faith community, even within my own family.” Fair enough, conscience isn’t always based on rationality.

But just imagine how much better our government would be if all decisions were made this way! Politicians might realise the asset sales policy is a bad one, for example, and vote against it even if they belong to the party which originated the idea. The social and economic environment we live in changes and individuals are more likely to change with it than large, cumbersome organisations like political parties are.

The idea isn’t perfect, of course, but what political system is? Maybe the biggest problem would involve list MPs. They became MPs because the party they belonged to got enough votes. In their case an argument could be made to say that they should follow the official line of the party which got them into power. But the majority of our politicians – those who were voted for directly in electorate seats – surely owe their allegiance to the electorate rather than the party.

Another potential problem might be the predicability and stability of governments. More conscience votes would presumably make carrying out fixed policies more difficult and that could be seen as a bad thing. But it could also be seen as a good thing because, as I said above, the situation we find ourselves in changes and a more free voting system might make changing bad policy (such as asset sales) more likely.

There has been criticism of the outcome of the two conscience votes but there has been a lot of positive commentary as well. One political commentator said the votes “showed parliament in its best light”. I agree, and we usually see that so rarely!

Our parliament spends a lot of time debating issues, policies, and new bills. What is the point if the members can only vote on party lines anyway? If MPs were free to vote based on their own beliefs and their own perception of the facts then maybe all those debates might serve some purpose. We might get more people changing their mind as a result of being exposed to new facts and information.

That has got to be positive, surely.

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