Whose Conscience Matters?


This national conference, there will be a call to bind the caucus to vote in favour of marriage equality.

Those who support a binding vote argue that marriage equality is simply about representing Labor values of fairness and equality.

Other supporters of marriage equality are nevertheless opposed to a binding vote on pragmatic grounds, arguing that a binding vote makes it less likely that the Liberals will allow a necessary conscience vote to ensure the Bill passes.

It is basically a gamble: support a conscience vote in the hope that it passes with the help of a conscience vote in the Liberal party as well, or support a binding vote in the assumption that the Abbott will never allow it to pass while he is PM, so we should prepare for when we are next in government.

Tactics aside, what should a conscience vote be for? Is it, as Plibersek argues, for “life and death” issues? Or is it for issues where disagreement is so deep that we can only agree to disagree.

And if marriage equality is conscience vote, why not refugee policy?

First, let’s look at public opinion on the two issues.

Crosby Textor recently found that 72 percent of Australians want same-sex marriage legalised. 21 percent oppose marriage equality and only 14 percent are strongly opposed. Essential found a slightly higher 28 percent opposed, but shows the number dropping every year.

Public opinion on our treatment of asylum seekers is much more contested and poorly reflected by a binding vote of the two major parties. Essential found last year that 27 percent of Australians believe that our treatment of asylum seekers is too harsh, while 18 percent think we are too soft.

The public is pretty overwhelming in favour of marriage equality, while we remain divided on asylum seeker policy. If our parliaments are to be properly reflective of its citizens, the policy with 72 percent approval should be the one we bind in favour of.

Of course, issues of conscience should not be reduced only to polling numbers.

Labor’s platform supports marriage equality on the grounds fairness and equality, but allows members to follow their own values.

At the same time we justify our policy of indefinite detention of asylum seekers with reference to the need to save lives at sea, while giving no freedom to those who believe that indefinite detention, which breaks people mentally and physically, is an equally unacceptable alternative.

We now literally frame asylum seeker policy as life or death. Drownings at sea, or people dying where we don’t have to see them. Saving people from a dangerous ocean journey, or breaking them in island prisons.

Bill Shorten said Monday that his stance “makes me live a little better each day"

I can’t think of better grounds for granting conscience votes than being able to live with oneself afterward.

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