The idea that parliamentarians are free to vote according to their conscience on particular issues upon first glance seems alternatively sensible and idiotic: sensible in the sense that shouldn't all votes in a legislature involve a member's conscience and idiotic in the sense and idiotic in precisely that same sense, shouldn't all votes in a legislature involve a member's conscience?
The fact that so-called conscience voting is even a thing in parliamentary democracies and particularly those within the Westminster tradition, stems from the modern system of formal parties; where certain members who have the curious name of "Whips" enforce party discipline. Straying to far from the intentions of the party caucus can lead to expulsion from the party in some cases and this does happen on rare occasions.
However, I'm not at all a fan of the conscience vote, and the reasons are somewhat blurry.
When someone becomes a Member of Parliament, they in theory are there to represent the views and opinions of the electorate which put them there. This is where my first problem with a conscience vote begins.
I would argue that that the conscience of the Member of Parliament is to some degree irrelevant if they are there to represent the members of their constituency. A member of parliament is a public servant with a specific function and that function is to provide their particular constituency with a voice. I would argue that if there was a matter upon which it was decided that there should be a conscience vote, then it stands to reason that it should be the opinion of the electorate which is expressed and not the member. There might arise for instance, a matter which the majority of the electorate vehemently and violently disagrees with the opinions of the sitting member. Does the Member of Parliament have the right or even should they even be allowed to have the right to vote in a manner contrary to their electorates wishes? If such situation were to arise, then their position would not be very representative at all and the whole point or representative democracy is for naught.
Then there's the problem that in a representative democracy with single-member constituents, the sitting member represents a majority of opinions but since there are people within the electorate who didn't specifically vote for them, their opinion is effectively quashed and negated entirely. Forgive me, but in contests where several candidates might share first preferences equally, then the conscience vote of a single member might only represent a small portion; to which a majority even within that electorate might disagree and for matters of such high import which would require a conscience vote, that doesn't seem particularly democratic to me.
Secondly I ask the question, does a Member of Parliament even have a conscience? Admittedly I am being quite vexatious here but when you have political parties which are being lobbied by interest groups with money, the whole question of who the members actually represent comes into play? Are the interests of lobbyists representatives of the community at large, or are they a small section who just happen to be organised and vociferous?
Section 51 of the Constitution contains the much ignored clause that the parliament has the power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect of a list of many things. I take particular note of the words good government and question whether or not our Members of Parliament can honestly say that their conscience votes or even votes down official lines have contributed to this end; if they have not, then even the conscience vote itself fails in its section 51 obligations.
I'd argue that that if there was truly a matter upon which a parliament was called upon to make a conscience vote, then we're probably really only concerned with contentious issues and usually along lines of ethical, moral and religious lines. It makes sense that if parliament was called upon to vote upon those issues, then I'd rather see the people consulted via the process of a referendum if it were that contentious. I am aware of arguments that referenda should not be used in such circumstances but really, if we do happen to be dealing with some issue so important, then the majority of voters in the majority of states criteria as used in section 128 is the most accurate method of assessing the conscience of the nation, which is after all the aim of a conscience vote anyway. Anything less is a failure of democracy and not good government.
Or maybe it's just that I'd rather the people be consulted about important issues more often. You know? That thing called democracy?