Conscience Votes and the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Bill

Dr Steven Tudor

The Abortion Law Reform Bill is currently before the Victorian Parliament. The voting on this Bill will be one of the few occasions when individual Members of Parliament will be freed from the constraints of toeing the party line and allowed to vote each according to their own conscience.

When deciding what their conscience dictates, many parliamentarians can be expected to consider their own religious views. This is, of course, entirely legitimate. A 'conscience vote' (or 'free vote' as it also called) permits MP's to take into account all the matters that might reasonably inform their own sincere and considered moral judgment.

What should happen, though, when an MP's moral and religious views are guided by the doctrines and indeed injunctions of a particular church? Is that truly consistent with the principle behind conscience voting?

In 2007 the issue of how far churches should attempt to influence parliamentarians' voting came to a head when Sydney's Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, publicly stated that Catholic politicians who voted for the New South Wales Human Cloning and Other Prohibited Practices Amendment Bill 2007 'must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the church'. Presumably, the reasons that prompted Cardinal Pell to make that comment also apply — with even more force — to the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Bill.

If an MP were to vote — or even seriously considered voting — in accordance with a particular church's teaching because they feared for their position within the church or simply because they wanted to follow that church's teaching, what implications does this have for that MP's role as a representative of their constituents?

There seem to be three main ways an MP might decide how to vote when given a conscience vote. First, they might go back to their electorate and try to find out what the majority of their constituents want. This seems to be the most democratic approach: the MP is merely the conduit of the electorate's wishes. How these wishes might be truly ascertained is, of course, a problem. One suspects few MPs do accurate polling, as opposed to simply listening to what various self-selected lobbyists and activists may have to say and then making a rough judgment call.

Second, the MP might look only to their own sense of right and wrong and vote according to their own conscience. That may be a carefully articulated and principled outlook or perhaps a more case-by-case approach, maybe involving getting in touch with their feelings on the day. Either way, the MP is not representing the electorate's wishes but following their own personal views. Of course, in principle at least, the electorate can retrospectively endorse or disapprove a purely personal conscience vote by voting for or against the MP at the next election. But it must surely be a rare thing for an MP to lose their seat because of how they voted when following their own conscience.

Perhaps things are different in the case of a well known MP who is trusted by their electorate. Their general moral and political outlook may be known to some degree by their constituents when they are elected, and, as a trusted individual, they are given a prospective endorsement to vote as their private conscience may dictate. This is perhaps more a matter of delegation by the electorate rather than representation of it. But maybe democracy is a large enough idea to accommodate this.

Finally, an MP may take guidance from — or even seek instruction from — a third party, such as a church or lobby group. It is here that we encounter more serious issues about democratic representation. If an MP who is a member of a party and also a devout Catholic intends to use their conscience votes to vote in accordance with Catholic teaching, then it would seem a democratic requirement to make this clear to their electorate when campaigning. For, in an important sense, that MP is intending not simply to be a representative of their political party when they get into Parliament but also a representative of the Catholic Church. They would certainly seem not to be representing their geographic electorate when they vote along Catholic lines.

When most people vote for a candidate they are not voting for the candidate personally but for the political party that endorsed them. Obviously this is because they want that person to vote in accordance with that party's policies. If a candidate is consistently going to vote in accordance with a particular religious teaching when released from party discipline, then that is not within their brief if it has not been part of their election platform. If a candidate for Parliament intends to represent Catholic (or Hindu or Anglican or Islamic or even atheistic utilitarian) views when given a conscience vote, then that should be made known to the constituents before the election, so that they can judge whether this is indeed how they would prefer their parliamentary representative to vote when released from party discipline.

This is not to argue against religious views being permitted to influence parliamentary debates. In a democracy all voices should be heard. It is simply to argue that democracy should also require that candidates for parliament be up front and honest about when and how their religious views will influence them so that their constituents can be properly informed when casting their vote.

Do any Victorian parliamentarians intend to vote according to the teaching of a particular church or lobby group when the Abortion Law Reform Bill comes up for the final vote? If so, they should have told their constituents that when they were campaigning at the last election.

An earlier version of this article appeared online as 'Conscience Votes and the Party Faithful' on the Australians All website in November 2007.

About Steven Tudor

Dr Steven Tudor is a lecturer in the School of Law, La Trobe University. He teaches in the areas of public law, human rights, and jurisprudence. He was formerly a barrister and a public servant, and is a past committee member of Liberty Victoria.