Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler

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Legal Beagle: A matter of conscience

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  • Tim McKenzie,

    During the most recent election campaign, I went to a meet-the-candidates event for Hutt South. One of the questions was about whether the candidates would support a bill about euthanasia at its first reading. Holly Walker said she would vote according to her party's position on the issue. She didn't know what her party's position would be, because it was still in development, and wouldn't be finalized until after the election.

    Lower Hutt • Since Apr 2007 • 107 posts Report Reply

  • Graeme Edgeler, in reply to Tim McKenzie,

    Holly Walker said she would vote according to her party's position on the issue. She didn't know what her party's position would be, because it was still in development, and wouldn't be finalized until after the election.

    That's how it seems to work. A lot of conscience issues are really only issues of conscience for those who hold a firm opinion in one particular direction.

    Death Penalty opposition, or slavery abolition are intensely personal moral positions for those who wanted change. Support for the death penalty, and support for slavery, or more recently support for alcohol liberalisation aren't usually moral positions. Many people who opposed Sunday trading did so for moral reasons, but the reverse isn't true; support for Sunday trading didn't come from people who were morally opposed to a ban, it came from people who didn't think morals came into it.

    My thesis is that many of the issues now treated as conscience issues, simply aren't any more, at least for the vast majority of MPs and voters.

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 2996 posts Report Reply

  • Tim McKenzie,

    That’s how it seems to work. A lot of conscience issues are really only issues of conscience for those who hold a firm opinion in one particular direction.

    It's worse than that in the case of the Green Party. Holly told us that all Green candidates are required to sign a document agreeing that they will always vote according to Green Party policy, on every issue on which the Green Party has a policy. So the party gets to decide what issues its MPs are allowed to have consciences about, and by developing a policy on euthanasia, it decided that its MPs can't have consciences on an issue of life and death.

    Lower Hutt • Since Apr 2007 • 107 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    I'm not sure how much I can agree with you, Graeme, because you seem to be taking both sides on a couple of points. As far as I'm concerned, every vote is a conscience vote, my own included, and parties do not enhance democracy at all, for that reason. They are a shadow cast over representative democracy, powerful only because of the iron law of oligarchy, rather than because they are good in themselves. One of the best things about MMP (and other proportional representation systems) is that it takes account of the horrid influence of parties in the process, enabling more than a duality of them to exist.

    No one is "forced to vote" in a particular way, even by a party whip. They can leave the party, and if they disagree on enough policy they probably should. For quite a few politicians, this has been a path to a higher level of influence and (ironically) job security than to suck it up and vote against their beliefs. The rest are, in my opinion, cowards, which is not a quality I find at all endearing in the supposedly excellent people who rule my country.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8318 posts Report Reply

  • Tim McKenzie, in reply to BenWilson,

    One of the best things about MMP (and other proportional representation systems) is that it takes account of the horrid influence of parties in the process, enabling more than a duality of them to exist.

    But it gives the parties much more power to choose who will be MPs, regardless of voters' preferences.

    Consider how difficult it would be for determined voters to get John Key out of Parliament under MMP. Now consider that Australian voters got John Howard out of Parliament (under PV, I believe) immediately after he'd been Prime Minister for eleven years.

    Lower Hutt • Since Apr 2007 • 107 posts Report Reply

  • Angus Robertson,

    The criminalisation of victimless crimes seems pretty immoral to me.

    Auckland • Since May 2007 • 984 posts Report Reply

  • Graeme Edgeler, in reply to Tim McKenzie,

    Now consider that Australian voters got John Howard out of Parliament (under PV, I believe) immediately after he’d been Prime Minister for eleven years.

    Australian voters? I think you mean Bennelong voters, and boundary and demographic changes.

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 2996 posts Report Reply

  • Graeme Edgeler, in reply to BenWilson,

    As far as I’m concerned, every vote is a conscience vote, my own included, and parties do not enhance democracy at all, for that reason.

    I'm trying to draw a distinction between personal votes, and conscience votes. I think there is a place for conscience votes, being votes on which MPs are only accountable to themselves/God, and other votes, on which their parties, supporters, and voters generally can and should hold them to account.

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 2996 posts Report Reply

  • Tim McKenzie, in reply to Graeme Edgeler,

    I vaguely remember you (or it may have been someone else) quoting part of Edmund Burke's famous speech to the electors of Bristol

    Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

    Lower Hutt • Since Apr 2007 • 107 posts Report Reply

  • Tim McKenzie, in reply to Graeme Edgeler,

    Australian voters? I think you mean Bennelong voters

    Are Bennelong voters not Australian voters?

    The point is that a huge majority of New Zealanders (say 90%) might oppose Steven Joyce's (or, say, Winston Peters's) return to Parliament, but if the party is determined, and a small proportion of voters is willing, they will be returned to Parliament anyway, and will stand a good chance of being part of the Government. So much for Government by consent.

    For this to happen under PV, it requires that the few willing voters just happen to be astoundingly geographically concentrated in one electorate.

    And because MMP gives parties more influence over who gets into Parliament, it gives them more influence over how their MPs vote in Parliament.

    Lower Hutt • Since Apr 2007 • 107 posts Report Reply

  • Tim McKenzie,

    Oh, yes; I forgot to mention that MMP also gives more power to parties by allowing them to stand candidates for all 120 seats; independent candidates have only 70 seats to choose from.

    Lower Hutt • Since Apr 2007 • 107 posts Report Reply

  • Graeme Edgeler, in reply to Tim McKenzie,

    I vaguely remember you (or it may have been someone else) quoting part of Edmund Burke's famous speech to the electors of Bristol

    I don't think I've ever quoted Burke, although I don't think I'm really speaking against him here.

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 2996 posts Report Reply

  • Graeme Edgeler, in reply to Tim McKenzie,

    And because MMP gives parties more influence over who gets into Parliament, it gives them more influence over how their MPs vote in Parliament.

    In theory, yes.

    But New Zealand has only rarely had members of Parliament cross the floor, under MMP or FPP. It happens all the time in the UK under FPP, but our Parliament has simply proved too small* to allow it to happen.

    *there are probably other factors, but I think size is the major one.

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 2996 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __,

    Graeme, I understand your point, but I wonder if it's necessary to drag gods into this debate. Plenty of atheists have very strong principles on certain issues.

    Marilyn Waring famously told the National Party that there were 2 things she was prepared to cross the floor over: one was rape, and the other was the nuclear issue.

    Can we distinguish between administrative issues like tax policy, and ethical ones like slavery or euthanasia?

    I think the regulations about alcohol fall somewhere in between. Few people disagree that alcohol can cause great harm, but it seems useless to ban it outright. So alcohol laws are somewhere between what's ethical (harm prevention) and what's pragmatic (laws that can reasonably be enforced).

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3419 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to Lilith __,

    Graeme, I understand your point, but I wonder if it’s necessary to drag gods into this debate. Plenty of atheists have very strong principles on certain issues.

    This atheist says +1.
    I have both a strong sense of morality, and equity, and my conscience will not allow me to sanction certain things. Gods do not come into the matter.

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Graeme Edgeler, in reply to Lilith __,

    Graeme, I understand your point, but I wonder if it's necessary to drag gods into this debate.

    I used God because of the historical basis of most of our conscience issues. The temperance movement was strongly rooted in Christianity. The reason that issues around alcohol have been conscience issues is because of this. Most MPs who were compelled by their consciences to vote a particular way on "conscience" issues, in New Zealand historically and in the United Kingdom as well, we doing so out of religious conviction.

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 2996 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Graeme Edgeler,

    the historical basis of most of our conscience issues

    Sure, but does that really apply much today? How many of our MPs are committed Christians? I’d guess not that many. But many of them still hold strong and inflexible views on certain ethical issues, whether or not they believe in a deity.

    I think there are good reasons for still having conscience votes on some issues, but I want those reasons to be framed in a secular way. Otherwise it seems to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3419 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Campbell, in reply to Graeme Edgeler,

    I'm trying to draw a distinction between personal votes, and conscience votes. I think there is a place for conscience votes, being votes on which MPs are only accountable to themselves/God, and other votes, on which their parties, supporters, and voters generally can and should hold them to account.

    I disagree - they're representatives, they're supposed to represent the people who voted them in, not their party, or any particular god (we don't let them vote). List MPS arguably represent parties as well since the people they represent voted them in through their party.

    In general I think that when a conscience vote is held an MP should go out of their way to determine what the consciences of the people they represent think, rather than just decide they know better.

    But the thing is that in a representative election there are no single issues - you can't vote someone in just on the abortion issue, or just on capital punishment, or slavery, or taxes, or .... in the end you have to choose someone who represents the majority of what you believe in and sort of hope that it all come out in the wash - an MP who continues to find out what the people who elected want so he or she can represent them better is a good MP.

    I think that a great question to have a prospective MP answer is "what conscience issues would you vote for (or against) even if the majority of your electorate (or party's supporters for list MPs) felt differently?".

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2074 posts Report Reply

  • Tim McKenzie, in reply to Graeme Edgeler,

    I don't think I've ever quoted Burke, although I don't think I'm really speaking against him here.

    It must have been someone else, then. I think it was on Public Address, but I can't find it.

    Anyway, even tax policy is an ethical issue, and should therefore be a conscience issue. Tax law allows (perhaps requires?) the Government to confiscate a proportion of people's wealth. This may be justifiable if it benefits society as a whole. (Your ethics may require that it results in a net benefit to those from whom the wealth is confiscated, or even that wealth is confiscated only from those guilty of some wrongdoing.) But if you do not believe (with good reason) that a certain tax policy will benefit society, then how can you possibly vote in favour of it in good conscience? To do so would be to vote in favour of unmitigated theft.

    Lower Hutt • Since Apr 2007 • 107 posts Report Reply

  • Graeme Edgeler, in reply to Tim McKenzie,

    It must have been someone else, then. I think it was on Public Address, but I can't find it

    Craig is a fan, I think.

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 2996 posts Report Reply

  • Ewan Morris,

    This may be of interest - the Law Commission on alcohol legislation and the conscience vote

    Since Nov 2006 • 29 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Smith,

    The point is that a huge majority of New Zealanders (say 90%) might oppose Steven Joyce’s (or, say, Winston Peters’s) return to Parliament, but if the party is determined, and a small proportion of voters is willing, they will be returned to Parliament anyway, and will stand a good chance of being part of the Government. So much for Government by consent.

    Tim, under MMP (and most electoral systems aside from STV), we don't get to vote against anyone, only for someone. So if 90% of the electrorate don't want John Key to enter Parliament, they'll balance that preference against how much they like National/other parties.Voters have proven they have split preferences.

    A good example is how National won ~49% of the vote (I don't have the exact figures to hand) while polls regularly put opposition to asset sales at between 60 and 75%.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2008 • 11 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    Witb the exception of gambling, all of the 'conscience' issues are also those of fundamental human rights. People have the right to life, the right to decide what to do with their bodies, the right to observe their own religion or none.

    An MP has every right to make a personal decision not to drink, not to have an abortion and not to shop on a Sunday. What we are talking about isn't them exercising that right, it's them forcing others (using the state's monopoly of violence) to adhere to their personal moral views.

    It's quite reasonable that a political party should insist that its MPs align to the parties principals regarding such issues - indeed, I'd be loath to vote for a party that didn't.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 4421 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    how difficult it would be for determined voters to get John Key out of Parliament under MMP

    He's the MP for Helensville, with 74% of the votes. I can't think of any electoral system that would change this.

    Contrast this with local councillors, who are mostly independent. Michael Lhaws is a Whanganui councillor, and there's very little most of us can do to get rid of him.

    (I think the easiest way would be for parliament, under a conscience vote, to pass a Bill of Indictment allowing for his public vivisection, with an appropriate advice from the Attorney General that this conflicts with every single clause of BORA, but that we shall do it anyway).

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 4421 posts Report Reply

  • tussock,

    @Tim, etc. Under FPP people just get put in safe seats. Look at who the good people of Epsom voted for last election, there's always some group will hold their nose and kiss the toads.

    Also, yeh, this idea that morality comes from religion is a lie. It never did, each new religion just claimed long-existing morality as their own, and changed along with society if they wished to survive. It's how Christian doctrine came to disagree with slavery, because the mass working class already did.

    Since Nov 2006 • 365 posts Report Reply

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