Heed Burke on plebiscite

same sex gay marriageFederal Attorney-General finally put to rest doubts about the government’s position on same-sex marriage when he announced that a submission for the mooted plebiscite would go to Cabinet within weeks, with the vote to be held this year or early next year.

Assuming all the parliamentary ducks assemble in a neat little conga line, the future of the Marriage Act 1961 (amended 2004) will be determined by a plebiscite — a ‘people’s vote’.

There are good reasons to question the utility of the plebiscite mechanism, not least of which is the fact that it is a decision steeped in ordinary politics, rather than concerns of policy or philosophy. That future parliaments may seek to cut through thorny issues by leaving the decision to ‘the people’ — and the extent to which this may damage representative democracy — should be acknowledged.

Nevertheless, the more pressing issue is how a plebiscite on this topic would interact with individual politicians’ strongly-held views on the topic. A great deal depends on whether the plebiscite is binding, i.e. with parliamentarians obliged to legislate the outcome.

A non-binding plebiscite would merely be a glorified opinion poll. Those who are already resolved to vote in favour would do so. A handful of parliamentarians have openly said they would put their personal views aside and vote in favour of amendment if the plebiscite was resolved in the affirmative. Other parliamentarians have said they are resolved to vote against if their ‘constituency’ is against it. At this point it becomes fairly obvious: under this scenario, the only people whose positions are shifted are those in the middle. This process cannot be fairly termed a ‘people’s vote’.

A binding plebiscite resolved in the affirmative, on the other hand, would mean parliamentarians voting unanimously to amend the Act. In other words, a properly executed people’s vote would leave no room for conscience.

Edmund Burke opined strongly on the centrality of conscience for parliamentarians, stating “his [a parliamentarian’s] unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you [his constituents], to any man, or to any set of men living.” He went further, saying “he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Defenders of enlightened conscience should expect nothing less than a free and open vote from all the members of the parliament.