Saturday, October 28, 2006

Conscience votes - should list MPs be able to vote?

As I was thinking about the Sale of Liquor (Youth Alcohol Harm Reduction) Amendment Bill, I started to wonder about how appropriate it is for list MPs to cast conscience votes. Why?

Well let’s consider the philosophy behind MMP. It is a system designed to provide a combination of fair local representation (electorates) with MPs who are meant to represent the views of their electorates, and provide fair national representation to enable governments to be formed based upon the notional support of (more often than not) around 50% or more of voters. The list MPs explicitly represent parties and the platform that parties present to the voting public for their list votes. List MPs cannot be voted out of Parliament explicitly – only by voters rejecting the party, which means it is an all or nothing vote for a policy platform. List MPs ought not to do more than represent the party manifesto. People did not vote for them, they voted for the party.

This works all very well when we are talking about legislation when parties have policies. Labour says yes, National says no, the others say yes or no etc etc. Conscience votes are another matter. If you were asking what party to support on a range of conscience matters you might be disappointed, especially in the two main parties where a spectrum of views tends to be represented on these matters. So is a tick for Labour that gets Ashraf Choudhary in Parliament or a tick for National to get Pansy Wong really meaning you want her to represent you on conscience votes? Maybe, maybe not.

More importantly, given that the electorate vote is so typically devalued in forming governments (it is most highly valued by the four minor parties dependent on winning certain electorates to get into Parliament), should it not be recognised as being the representation of the views of the local community on conscience votes? Marian Hobbs can legitimately claim to represent the views of Wellington Central voters on conscience matters and I am betting that, most of the time, she would be. Other electorate MPs may or may not be, but frankly those MPs are best placed to poll constituents. Many electorate MPs DO poll constituents on conscience issues - list MPs have no constituency to poll, and if they did it would double count the views of the electorate MPs. So if only electorate MPs could vote on conscience issues this could mean that the electorate vote would be seen by voters as a choice for the individual who best represented your views as a resident of an electorate, rather than choosing the party for government.

So, what I am proposing is that list MPs have no right to vote in Parliament on conscience matters, unless the party concerned has a unified position and will vote as such (which presumably includes the electorate MPs which not only represent their constituencies but also supplant list MPs in the first instance as a proportion of that party’s seats in Parliament). If it is not part of a party’s policy platform (in which case it is reasonable to expect all of the party’s MPs to vote identically and that the list vote DOES represent the views of voters who can endorse or reject the platform), then it should not be the party list MPs making a call – because they would be making a call on an issue they were not elected to represent and for which they cannot be held individually accountable.
Easy to police? Well the choice would be simple. If a party had a policy on a bill, it would not be a conscience matter and all of the party's MPs would be expected to vote consistently. If it had no policy, then list MPs must abstain and electorate MPs can vote on their conscience.

So what would this do? For starters, it would energise parties to develop policy responses to conscience votes because many of their MPs would want to participate. Green and NZ First MPs under the current parliament would have no votes on a conscience issue unless they had formulated a consistent policy (as they have no electorate MPs). The Greens typically do have views on these sorts of things, so they would be ok.

You can see it being seen as unfair that electorate MPs get to vote on conscience matters, and more often than not it is Labour and National list MPs that can’t (because neither major party is prepared to adopt policy one way or the other on the drinking age or smacking or prostitution or civil unions etc), but the Green and ACT list MPs can because both parties have a policy on the drinking age (presumably, though I never knew ACT did). For starters, most electorate MPs will be Labour or National anyway. However it also pressures all parties to start thinking philosophically about all issues in front of Parliament, and if they can’t it is left to those best able to represent the views of voters – electorate MPs. Does it mean that if I say voted Marian Hobbs as my electorate MP and Greens for the party list that I get two bites on a conscience issue in Parliament? It sure does (and you don’t need to ask to think I’d vote like a masochistic lunatic). It also means that the Greens, ACT and any other parties with policies on conscience matters actually get a higher profile, because voters who care about these issues may prefer to vote for them than National or Labour.

Which of course, is the primary reason it will go nowhere. National and Labour have everything to lose from this idea. Nevertheless, is it worth thinking about?

No comments: