Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

Australians need politicians who vote with their conscience, not their party

Once in a blue moon, Australia’s major political parties allow their parliamentarians to cast what is called a “conscience vote”. On that vote — and that vote alone — members or senators are free to vote according to what they personally believe is right.

It happens so rarely, and on a small subset of questions before Parliament, that it’s kind of a big deal when it happens. In the 58 years from 1950 to 2007 there were only 32 conscience votes, an average one every 1.8 years. Under the Hawke and Menzies government there was only one every three years on average, and in the four years of the Keating government there were none at all.

You’d hope that they were voting according to what their electorate believes is the right thing to do. But no, polling is time-consuming and expensive — most members and senators would probably like to know what you think but can’t afford to find out.

No. Most of the time, the people we elect to represent us in Parliament are voting the way their party tells them to vote.

Nearly all our Federal politicians belong to the Liberal/National Party coalition, the ALP or the Greens. Each party has a policy ‘platform’ that includes answers to most of the big questions the party expects to come before it.

The party develops and refines that policy platform, and then the party’s members and senators vote the way the party’s platform dictates.

Well… Kind of, sort of, most of the time, almost.

Party policy can be as open to interpretation as the Old Testament.

Some policies are quite specific. For instance, if you scroll through the ALP policy platform, you’ll find the ALP is in favour of investing in the development of a high-speed rail network, and even how it intends for it to be developed:

“Labor will re-establish the High Speed Rail Planning Authority as a statutory body, and re-engage with the Queensland, NSW, Victorian and ACT Governments, local government and the rail industry, to continue planning and to begin the vital initial work of corridor preservation.”

On other questions, a party’s policy platform can be frustratingly vague and can sometimes descend into taking jabs at rivals. Like this, from the ALP’s policy on public transport:

“Labor will make funding available for public transport projects, including urban passenger rail and rapid transit infrastructure — unlike the Coalition.”

Frustrating, because despite the slagging, the Coalition actually does fund public transport, though perhaps it aims for a different balance between investment in public and private transport. And vague, because this policy provides ample room in which to maneuver out of funding a public transport proposal, if the situation warrants it.

Manoeuvring out of a party’s usual policy on an issue is most often necessary because of political expediency. Our major parties long ago evolved beyond their original goal of simply representing the best interests of employees (ALP), employers (Liberal Party), farmers (National Party) and environmentalists (The Greens).

First they convinced themselves that in order to represent their constituency they needed to win office. Having won office, they convinced themselves it was necessary to hold on to office in order to continue to represent their constituency.

Gradually, the need to represent the best interests of the constituency became less and less important, and winning and retaining power became more important.

Now, barely a month goes by without one major party or another apparently going against the best interests of the voters they represent in order to be in a better position to win at the next election, or to drive a wedge between the party and its supporters, to drive a wedge between the left and right wings of the party, or even just to embarrass a single politician for a day in the media.

Only every two-to-three years do they ever get to vote the way they individually think is right (unless, by coincidence, their conscience happens to align with the political needs of the party).

Now and again, I meet with a Federal MP I know, and we talk about the issues of the day. In confidence, without his party colleagues, the rest of the chamber and the media listening in, he tells me what he really thinks.

Some of what he believes to be right also happens to be in line with how his party wants him to vote. Other things he believes in go against his party’s position on an issue.

He tells me he privately lobbies his colleagues behind the scenes, and tries to sway their opinions, but his party has left, centre and right factions and it very much depends who holds the most power as to how the party as a whole votes on most of the legislation before Parliament.

When I suggest to him that he might consider ‘crossing the floor’ on an issue he believes is important, to vote against his party’s position on the matter, he rules that out without a moment’s hesitation.

His party will not tolerate that kind of dissent in public. Party unity is everything; disunity brings down party leaders, ministers and governments with it, as the next Federal election might show us once again.

If he votes against his party, he’ll never work in this town again.

And he needs to work in this town. Because while he used to have another profession, he gave it up when he entered Parliament — he can’t go back to his old town anymore. There are only four ways out of Parliament; at a lost election or casualty of a political brawl, retired due to age or ill-health, or (and only if you’ve been loyal enough for many years) with a coveted diplomatic posting overseas. You don’t just get to go home with your head held high.

Independent senators and members of Parliament are the only Federal politicians who get to vote without being restricted by the needs of a party. They’re the only ones who get to exercise their conscience every time they vote on a bill.

Of course, independents do get lured into making compromises too, sometimes. An independent politician can gain useful allies, win electoral prizes straight out of the pork barrel, and get media airtime they otherwise wouldn’t, if they’re prepared to muffle what their conscience tells them in order to support a major party position. But at least they have a choice to do it, or not.

Australia’s parliamentary system was intended to elect senators and members who would represent the needs and interests of their electorate — you and I. It no longer works that way. Instead, they represent the needs of the major parties, and those needs are threefold (1) gaining and (2) holding seats in the House and the Senate and (3) winning factional battles and party leadership struggles.

That’s just not good enough for me. Call me a hopeless idealist, but if my elected representative can’t or won’t find out where I stand on a decision, I would like them to vote according to their interpretation of the facts, as informed by the majority of expert opinion, and guided by their conscience.

I think we need to find a way to make every vote a conscience vote.

I hope you do too.

I’m Alan Jones, coach for accelerators, partner at M8 Ventures, angel investor. Earlier: founder, early Yahoo product manager, tech reporter.