Monday, September 12, 2011

Steve Baron - Free Votes: Can We Trust MPs Morals & Principles?

Free votes (conscience votes) in parliament are not something the average voter ever gives much thought to—yet they often have a dramatic effect on our everyday lives. Many a controversial topic has been decided in parliament via a free vote.

Some of these issues have included; homosexuality law reform, prostitution, gambling, abortion, euthanasia, the regulation of social issues such as pornography, Sunday trading, divorce and matrimonial property, adoption, the sale of alcohol, electoral reform, the compulsory wearing of seat belts, mandating the fencing of swimming pools, smoking in public places, child discipline and compulsory military training.
Originally there were no political parties in the New Zealand parliament. Politicians were not obligated to vote in any particular manner, so therefore every vote in parliament at the time could be considered a free vote. The first political party in New Zealand, the New Zealand Liberal Party, governed from 1891 until 1912 and party MPs were expected to vote along party lines.

The first officially recorded free vote in the New Zealand parliament was in 1893. Free votes came about because of new drinking laws being proposed towards the end of the 19th century, and were a safety valve for parties because some party members felt so strongly about certain issues. Initially, the use of free votes in parliament was slow and only two free votes had been held by 1900 and just nine by the end of the 1940s. Up until the 1940s there had been on average, 1.1 free votes in parliament each year. Since then, there has been an average of 2.1 free votes each year.

When we look at the figures, 42% of all free votes have been related to the control and provision of alcohol, and 19% have been held on issues related to gambling. Generally speaking, the New Zealand public has accepted the use of free votes in parliament as a normal part of parliamentary business, especially when free votes are on moral or ethical issues that are unlikely to be party issues at the core of government.

David Lindsey's 'Conscience Voting' chapter in Raymond Millers book New Zealand Government & Politics, raises an important issue when he refers to 'constituents': Conscience voting can be considered a politically useful mechanism for dealing with socially contentious issues. The unpredictability of the outcome provides an incentive, if not compulsion, for parliamentarians to consider more carefully their own views, those of their constituents and the implications of their vote.

 What is important here is to consider whether the morals and principles of an MP are more important than the morals and principles of their constituents. Back in 2004 at an investment exposition he was attending, I spoke at some length with the then future Prime Minister John Key, specifically in regard to free votes and direct democracy. His comments were that free votes put MPs in a difficult position, or as he put it, “between a rock and a hard place because whatever we do is wrong in some person's eyes”.

So how do politicians make decisions when it comes to free votes?

From the politicians I have personally spoken to, there seem to be many options. Some vote based totally on their own conscience/morals/principals regardless of what others around them, including their electorate, want. Some try to gauge the public feeling, while others like Maurice Williamson, MP for Pakuranga (Auckland) say they actually poll their electorate first. For those who do wish to gauge the feeling of their electorate (if they are constituent MPs), and do not take any scientific poll, it becomes extremely difficult to make a decision because they may be influenced by a small number of people, not necessarily representative of the general public.

It could be argued that it would be more democratic if citizens were asked to decide such conscience issues in a referendum, rather than leaving the decision to individual MPs in a free vote, if parliament is seeking a more consensus-based society. After all, are the morals and principles of an MP any more valuable or important than those of the public? This writer does not think so. In fact, given the undesirable record of MPs over a very long period of time, it could be easily argued that their morals and principles are inferior to those of the general public and therefore decisions made via free votes in parliament should be transferred to voters in a referendum.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis. To me, Key's comment seems to convey paranoia - not an admirable trait in a politician.