When a conscience vote turns to blackmail

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“It is neither thoughtful nor respectful for one or two members of parliament to attempt to push their view on such an issue by any form of bullying, let alone threatening government,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.

CONSCIENCE votes in parliaments recognise deep commitment of particular individuals to matters that cannot be resolved within a political party. 

Michael Moore.

Sometimes called “free votes”, they attempt to move away from the hurly-burly of political machinations, to deal with such issues as abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.

However, the debate in NSW over decriminalising abortion reveals that intolerance, fanaticism and lack of respect for other moral perspectives can undermine the privilege of other parliamentarians. The same has been true in the ACT.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian is being held to ransom by two members of her own government. Without significant amendments to the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019, they have threatened to move to the cross benches. Considering the government’s slim majority, they know their outrageous demand would force the Premier into a minority government.

On seriously controversial issues the conscience vote allows members of parliament to find the majority view without being tied down by the usual party line. Rather than delegating to the minister or shadow minister responsible, each person has to come to their own conclusion. The use of coercion, intimidation and threats undermines respect for others’ beliefs.

Conservative MPs Kevin Conolly and Tanya Davies have threatened the Premier showing total disregard for anyone else’s view. Although a very small minority, their personal beliefs trump all others! 

Speaking at St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Parramatta, Tanya Davies said: “I am one of those two, and there is another colleague of mine, who have told the Premier and the Deputy Premier that if they do not make essential amendments to this Bill, we will remove ourselves from the party room”.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian… held to ransom by two members of her own government. Cartoon: Paul Dorin

The irony is that Tanya Davies was formerly the NSW Minister for Women who made her anti-abortion views apparent on the first day of her appointment. Claire Pullen, of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, expressed her concern pointing out at the time: “The overwhelming majority of people in NSW are pro-choice and we would want a Minister for Women who is prepared to trust women and doctors to make personal medical decisions”.

The MP representing Riverstone, Kevin Conolly, pointed out that the “nature of the Bill”, the “way it was introduced and expedited”, put him in an untenable position. 

The deferral, engineered by those of a like mind, is not enough for Conolly who wishes to use the delay tactic more extensively. His statement revealed his real intention: “This extreme Bill should be defeated outright and a new proper process commenced which would allow the community time to have input”. 

No matter what the input, it is clear he will never change his mind.

Playing politics with the issue is not just in the domain of the Liberals. Walt Secord, from Labor, used the opportunity to undermine the Premier and drive the political wedge. 

His statement included: “Gladys Berejiklian has caused this backbench revolt by her absolute lack of leadership”. He was fuelling divisions between the Premier, the Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Transport Minister Andrew Constance on the one hand and the Police Minister, David Elliott, and the Corrections Minister, Anthony Roberts, on the other.

A similar stoush occurred in the fourth term of the ACT Assembly when independents Paul Osborne and Dave Rugendyke pushed to have major restrictions placed on abortion services in the ACT. 

A centrepiece of their attempt required women seeking a termination to be given a booklet with information on pregnancy including pictures of foetuses. They were referred to as “unborn infants” and originally to be pictured inaccurately as though cute babies of different sizes.

The political threats centred around the budget and challenges of no-confidence in the Chief Minister.

Debates on these sorts of moral issues are challenging. For the majority of Members of Parliament, no matter what their personal view, they are conducted in a thoughtful and respectful manner. This facilitates a genuine conscience vote. 

It is neither thoughtful nor respectful for one or two members to attempt to push their view on such an issue by any form of bullying, let alone threatening government.



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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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