One of the more frequently quoted statements of the Irish statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, was his observation that “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement, and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Within the Westminster Parliamentary system over the last two hundred years, Burke’s comment has been constantly held up to justify Members of Parliament, whatever their party disposition, having the ultimate right to exercise their consciences above all else, should they wish to, on matters of absolute importance to them. In New Zealand, matters relating to alcohol and gaming, life and death, and sexual morality have customarily been held to be the issues on which Members of Parliament vote according to their own conscience, rather than the policies of the parties they represent.
Over the years, the exercise of Burke’s principle has taken a variety of forms whenever there have been conscience votes in the New Zealand Parliament. Some MPs have followed Burke’s line absolutely and voted exactly as they personally have felt and been prepared to confront any electoral consequences later; while others have taken the view that the conscience vote they exercise should not be the selfish privilege of their own conscience, but rather the view of the electorate they represent, and so have either polled or canvassed widely local public opinion before they vote. Others have just followed the party line on the issue, regardless of their own or their constituents’ views.
In recent years, there has been a slow but steady move to reduce, if not eliminate, the range of issues on which MPs have a conscience vote and rely instead on the requirement to uphold stated party policy on the issue in question. The rationale offered is that this gives the general electorate a greater sense of certainty and does not leave important and controversial issues up to the whims and vagaries of an individual, or groups of MPs, to decide according to their own reasons.
So far, this trend has been more apparent on the left side of politics. The Greens eschewed the notion of a conscience vote a long time ago, arguing that because the Greens are largely a list-based party, all their MPs have been elected because of the Greens’ policies, and that the notion of an individual conscience is therefore irrelevant. There have been times of late when Labour has exercised what it has called a “collective” conscience where all its MPs just happen to vote the same way on a conscience question.
Underlying all this is an assumption, again more strongly held on the left, that the privilege of Parliamentary decision-making is much too important to be left to the vested interests and prejudices of individual MPs, and best resides within the power of the collective. It is consistent with a wider ideological view it should be not the role of governments to promote the primacy and interests of the individual, but to uphold and support the value of collective action and shared responsibility. The quotation, famously but erroneously*, attributed to Voltaire that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” has no place in the neo-Orwellian world of collective-speak these anti-liberals are keen to usher in. Their notion of majority rule means the remainder must simply fall in and unquestioningly comply.
There are those who argue that the advent of MMP and its strong focus on political parties over traditional electorates has rendered redundant the idea of MPs promoting their individual views. List MPs are, after all, only in Parliament because of the ranking accorded them by the party they represent, so why should they not be expected to promote exclusively the views of the party whose label they wear? There is, according to this viewpoint, no other justification for their being in Parliament at all.
But Parliament is not a collection of blank pages to be scrawled over as political parties see fit. Well over half the MPs elected are from specific electorates, chosen because they are seen by those constituents to be the best person to represent their area in Parliament. That carries the not unreasonable expectation that local electorate MPs will at least speak out on local issues, even if it annoys their party, and be unafraid to show leadership when conscience issues arise.
Unfortunately, though, that noble expectation is currently being challenged on both sides of the political fence. It is becoming increasingly rare to see even electorate MPs – whose authority comes primarily from their electorate, not their party, willing to speak out when the interests of their electorates are being compromised. Instead of being the being the electorate’s representative, promoting the local case to Parliament, too often electorate MPs are joining their list colleagues and becoming just the cipher promoting and justifying the party’s position to the electorate.
It is a world far away from what Burke envisaged, where MPs would exercise their judgement alongside their party principles to make decisions in the best interests of the country. And as politicians have become more mono-dimensional, focused on protecting the party line ahead of the public interest, tolerance for diversity has been diminishing. A stifling uniformity is descending across the parties – where to succeed all their MPs try to look and sound the same. A modern version of HMS Pinafore’s Sir Joseph Porter, “I always voted at my party’s call, and never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
Political parties have a legitimate role in the mobilisation of opinion, and the organisation of its political expression. Democratic government cannot function without them. But to survive long-term parties need to become more flexible and tolerant of divergent views within their ranks. They also need to recognise the distinct human virtue of free will – or the right to be right and the right to be wrong, and that everyone is not the same. Suffocating or devaluing the value of free will in the interests of a wider collective, as today’s parties are doing is narrowing both individual uniqueness and social diversity.
It is time to rekindle Burke’s message. Our parties must certainly become more inclusive, but not just in a statistical sense. They must also become genuinely more tolerant of divergence within their memberships. Above all, they need to understand once more and promote afresh the notion that the best way of all to represent the public interest is to encourage their representatives to listen to local communities and always speak fearlessly on their behalf.
* The words reportedly come from an English author named Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906.