In good conscience
No matter what you think about the proposed gambling legislation currently being considered by Parliament, the Prime Minister’s seeming dismissal of the conscience vote on the Bill should be of concern. When asked about the possibility of National MPs voting no in accordance with their conscience, Mr Key said: “They won’t be doing that. Every single National MP campaigned on the convention centre. It was part of our policy, so all 59 will be voting for it.”
While technically leaving room for a National Party caucus member to disagree with the prevailing party line, Mr Key’s comments to the media make it clear to every National MP that any last minute attack of conscience, conviction, guilt or qualms about the potential negative impacts of this legislation is entirely unwelcome. After all, the party platform at the last election is what they campaigned on, and so it is their duty to continue to stand firm upon it.
Except it isn’t—not in matters of conscience. No matter how the media, or party leadership would like to portray it, in these matters Parliament is not simply a meeting place for eight political parties that wield their respective votes like chips at a poker table, it is a house of 120 or so individual representatives.
Of course it is usually expected that an MP of any party will vote to support the policy initiatives of the group with which they have aligned themselves. The very idea of forming government relies upon the notion that the ruling party or coalition can depend on a defined number of votes in issues of ‘confidence and supply’ like passing the annual Budget, and we generally expect governments to be able to implement the policies they campaigned on.
However, parliament has a tradition of allowing some issues to become conscience votes for good reason. On matters of greater social, moral or generational importance (as defined by tradition or parliamentary process), parliamentarians are given the freedom to consider the opinions of others, the subtleties and potential consequences of the specific legislation, and vote according to their conscience as an elected representative of the people.
This makes Mr Key’s apparent foreknowledge of the consciences of all of his MPs rather disconcerting. The idea that a National Party member’s conscience vote can be locked in by the party’s election manifesto—even before the actual legislation has been finalised and the issue declared a conscience vote—is ridiculous.
In matters of conscience, to prevent the House of Representatives from becoming a room of party leaders with an attendant collection of human rubber stamps, we need representatives who are free to carefully consider the issues before them, and when required, act with courage according to their conscience. The alternative is unconscionable.