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July 29, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Questionable Consciences

In the current environment of strict caucus discipline and strong cooperation between the government and support parties, it can often seem like a bill’s fate is decided before it is even introduced to the House. That is, until the occasional bills arise where MPs are given free reign to vote according to their conscience. Such votes are usually taken on ‘sin’ bills, dealing with drinking, gambling, homosexuality, sex, drugs—the fun things in life. So, when our elected representatives cast these votes, whose conscience do they have in mind?

Various MPs during the marriage-equality debate claimed to be “talking to their constituents” before making a decision as to their vote. While the feeling of being listened to and having some influence over a law-change is desirable, we need to remember that our system of government is a representative democracy. Our elected representatives are then given the power to make decisions on our behalf, according to the best advice and for the good of the country. To object to this system and to insist that MPs vote according to the will of their constituents conflicts with the very premise of our democracy—that we entrust the person that we elect to make the best decisions on our behalf.

Of course, as private individuals, we want our particular opinion to be expressed, but we also want what is best for the country, and these two views might not always accord. To make legislative decisions based on the will of the loudest voices in your electorate might be important to ensure re-election, but they are not necessarily the voices that are objectively providing the best advice. The sticky political wicket with regards to this issue are list MPs. Not beholden to a geographical electorate, it would appear that these mavericks are free to throw their votes about as they see fit and it’s silly to suggest that their votes should represent the whims of the entire nation.

Taking all this into account, it is hard to pinpoint just what it is that should inform an MP’s conscience. On all other issues, parties decide as a caucus how they will vote, or are guided by the party’s manifesto or platform. Usually, these policy positions are based on principles, ideology and informed by policy experts. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that MPs consider the potential electoral ramifications as more important than the rights or principle at stake.

Without wanting to insult the intelligence of the New Zealand people, we must acknowledge that public opinion is fickle. As counterintuitive as it seems, it may well be that our democracy is better served by honouring the triennial whim of the people, rather than the weekly.

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