When the seismic plates of public opinion grind against each other as they inevitably do over complex social issues such as abortion, prostitution, homosexual law reform, gay marriage, the various political parties employ a conscience vote rather than “whip” their MPs into towing the party line. The Voluntary Euthanasia Bill is the latest of the social issues where MPs are allowed a so called “free vote”.
It is important to note that our Parliament has adopted a stance of being secular which means the clear separation of church and state. No laws can be passed based on privilege or preference being given to any religion or religious grouping.
A conscience vote however can blur that essential separation as some religious MPs will set aside that vital separation of church and state by simply saying that it’s their value system and not religious belief that requires them to vote a certain way. A person’s value system is an entirely individualistic concept determined by personal virtue or vices.
A conscience vote therefore presents the opportunity for a backdoor introduction or re-introduction of religion into a secular Parliament. It is stretching credibility to believe an MP's strong religious belief will be carefully balanced against public opinion and support to the contrary. A conscience vote in Parliament however does not require MPs to discard their personal value system in favour of their constituents but neither should it allow nondisclosure/ privacy around their commitment to a religious dogma when, by choice, they enter the arena of politics or public life.
All members of Parliament must disclose their financial associations which can include family trusts when entering Parliament. They are not required to disclose their religious convictions despite the secular position of Parliament. Conflicts of interest are normally of a financial nature and should always disqualify an MP from participation in a debate where their personal wealth is advantaged. They (MPs) should also be compelled to disclose their religious creed lest they delegate their civic responsibilities below that of their religious adherence thereby creating not just a conflict of interest but the perception of uniting church and state. In politics perception is reality.
As with all matters before the Parliament which includes a conscience vote, the vested interests within our wider society are perfectly entitled and even encouraged to promote retention of the status quo. It is also entire appropriate for those with an alternative point of view within the public domain, to actively engage in the process to try to persuade public opinion to their way of thinking. MPs however usually remain strangely silent especially if he/she has failed to fully disclose they carry with them - a predetermined position based on their personal religious doctrinal beliefs.
Religious dogma or doctrine is defined as the official set of principles of a church or authority which are laid down as incontrovertibly true. The opposite of dogma/doctrine is open mindedness which the public rightfully expect to be among the first principles observed by all those who hold public office. That clearly isn’t a reality but is no reason why society should not require adherence to this goal.
The reason to retain and further develop the secular model of democracy is made obvious by simply observing those countries who are not secular. The conflict in the Middle East is but one appalling example why religion and its associated zealotry in all its forms must be kept out of all parliamentary processes. Jeremy Bentham (1746-1832) was a social reformer well ahead of his time and observed nearly 200 years ago, “Fanaticism never sleeps – it is never stopped by conscience for it has pressed conscience into its service”.
The perils of religious polarization must be negated by the strict enforcement of religious neutrality within our NZ Parliament. It is the duty of all within the confines of public life to act with good conscience in all things but to also declare that their delegated authority will be exercised - freed from all religious dogma and doctrine in the governance of this country.
The principle therefore which an MP must confront before casting a vote is - total adherence to the requirement of separation of church and state. Any MP who flouts the secular requirement of Parliament during a conscience vote - is guilty of contempt of Parliament- the highest court or authority in the land.
Parliament now needs to reaffirm that not only must separation be done - it must be seen to be done, (to paraphrase a famous legal decree) before another conscience vote is taken in our secular Parliament.
Gerry Eckhoff is a former Member of Parliament and councillor on the Otago Regional Council.