I noted around six months ago that the Queensland Premier was refusing to allow a conscience vote on legislation to reform Queensland’s abortion laws and address the situation faced by a young couple in Cairns who were currently facing criminal charges. The Premier justified this by suggesting that it couldn’t be guaranteed that the Parliament wouldn’t end up making Queensland’s abortion laws even harsher than they currently are.
But this week Queensland has seen a debate and a conscience vote on laws relating to voluntary surrogacy of children. Presumably the Premier’s worry about the uncertainty of outcomes on conscience votes must be lesser on this issue. The vote will happen soon, and it is assumed the law will pass, and Liberal National Party attempts to amend it to exclude same sex couples or single parents from accessing surrogacy will fail.
But a conscience vote doesn’t just provide MPs with a rare chance to vote in a manner completely in accord with the personal beliefs. It also tends to provide a chance for them to make speeches that much more closely reflect their own view, rather than the ‘party line’ type speeches that understandably can constrain their commentary.
As this debate on surrogacy is showing, finding out what MPs really believe can be a bit disconcerting – with one LNP MP saying that allowing same sex couples access to children born by surrogacy will “reduce children to the status of pets.”
Still, it is better to know that some people in parliament do think these things rather than live in ignorant hope that it is not the case. Of course, many of the other contributions on the debate have been more thoughtful. Sadly, it is the more outrageous or attacking comments that are likely to get the media coverage, although some of the more considered views do get a run now and then.
I have always believed that the Labor Party’s blanket prohibition on Members of Parliament voting against caucus decisions, even when it conflict with strongly held beliefs of their own, is excessive (which is hardly a problem for them, seeing I’ve never been on the ALP). I find it hard to see why conscience votes should not be allowed on every piece of legislation, if an MP has a strong enough belief. However, the practice has developed – almost as rigidly on the conservatives side in recent years, as well – where conscience votes are only allowed on a few issues relating to life and death – abortion, stem cells, euthanasia, etc. (although I have never been able to comprehend why these issues are the only ones that get labelled as “moral issues” to justify the conscience vote.)
As we’ve seen, even that very restricted right to a conscience vote only applies if the government agrees to have a parliamentary debate on such matters in the first place. The Queensland government continues to block such a debate on abortion laws.