Whenever I hear the expression “conscience vote” I think “plebiscite”. If a matter can be decided on the basis of “conscience”, then why do we need to delegate that decision to politicians? Do politicians have greater wisdom than the general public? Do they have more virtue, more courage? Are they less changeable, more dispassionate, less moved by the passing issues of the hour? No.
The idea with a conscience vote is that the matter at hand is not a highly technical matter that needs to be reviewed in detail in committee. Nor is it a matter of ideology where individual political party members may agree or disagree but the matter is an expression of a broad set of ideas or ideals that lead to the creation of the party, so party members must tow the line.
Proponents of same-sex marriage and proponents of euthanasia have recently proposed that conscience votes be held on those matters. I am not sure that euthanasia is suited to a conscience vote. Expert opinion about the workability of euthanasia is surely very important. Just as the public delegates consideration of all the in and outs of the complicated legislation to their members of parliament, individual members delegate the understanding of complexity to their parties and the committee structure of parliament.
Same-sex marriage is another matter. Ensuring that same-sex couples have all the legal rights of opposite sex couples is certainly a technical matter. But it is not legal issues that is at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate. A bill to grant the same legal rights to same sex couples is likely to pass the House without controversy (although adoption of children may meet stiff resistance).
The issue at the heart of same-sex marriage (as opposed to civil union) is community respect. The principal unfulfilled goal of same-sex marriage proponents is to elevate same-sex relationships to the same level of respect in the community as opposite-sex relationships. Giving the name of marriage to same-sex relationships is not mere nominalism or symbolism; it is about genuine respect. Just look at the way the Prime Minister’s relationship is sneered at to see that no marriage means no respect.
Same-sex marriage really is not a technical matter. It is a conscience matter. So, why would that decision be made by the parliament and not the people? In what way are members of the federal parliament any more qualified that ordinary citizens to decide whether same-sex relationships can be recognised as marriage? Same-sex marriage is a classic example of a question that should be decided by the people and not the parliament.