|08-30-2002, 05:49 AM||#1|
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: New Brunswick, NJ, USA
Australian lawmakers ban human cloning
|08-30-2002, 11:04 AM||#2|
Embryos kindle a needed debate
Embryos kindle a needed debate
Date: August 30 2002
A conscience vote brings Parliament to life. We should have more, writes Tom Allard.
'This debate has brought out the best in Parliament. There have been some very fine contributions on both sides and it is a reminder to all of us ... that this chamber can be a place of enlightened, impassioned and, I hope, constructive debate."
So said the Prime Minister on Wednesday, commenting on the two-week debate on human embryos, stem cell research and cloning that has seen 105 speakers deliver passionate and, more often than not, personally revealing speeches.
Whether it was Peter Costello musing about his religious faith, John Anderson alluding to the death of his son, or fire and brimstone rhetoric from the Minister for Aging, Kevin Andrews, the debate has been interesting and invigorating.
The stem cell vote was, of course, a free one, and a rare conscience vote at that. Given the general acclaim that has met the debate, the obvious question is: why don't we have more of them? Especially as the public is increasingly cynical about the political process and, almost certainly, more disengaged from national debates than ever.
Since the Coalition took office, there has been only one parliamentary conscience vote, on euthanasia. Including the referendum for a republic, there have been just seven examples where one or both major parties allowed its members a free vote in the 28 years since 1974.
Parliamentary library figures show that from 1955 to 1974 there were 20 conscience votes - on everything from the fluoridation of Canberra's water supply to the death penalty and homosexuality. Go back a little bit further and you find that all parties allowed their members a free vote on trade protection until 1936, not only the major issue of the time but an economic one. Such freedom would be unthinkable today. Apart from matters of parliamentary procedure , today conscience votes are generally restricted to "life and death" (abortion, the death penalty, etc) and "social and moral" (homosexuality, family law) issues.
The limits on free voting contrast starkly with the United States, where Congress members regularly defy their party colleagues to cross the floor. In the US, the primary allegiance of politicians is to the members of the electorate they represent, rather than the party. (Although it seems that allegiance lies first with big campaign donors).
Australia's Westminster system limits conscience voting. That's because the government is formed in the House of Representatives, whereas power of the executive government in the US, for example, resides outside the Congress. A lost vote on the floor of a Westminster parliament is effectively a vote of no confidence in the government.
Of Australia's political parties, Labor exerts the most strict discipline - it has a formal pledge that binds its parliamentarians to abide caucus and conference-determined policy, with the exception of abortion. Caucus can decide that other topics can be the subject of a conscience vote, as long as it doesn't contravene the party platform or any other decision of the national conference or executive.
The Australian Democrats - who are giving democracy a bad name - are at the other end of the spectrum. As founder Don Chipp said: "Everybody has the right, no, the obligation to vote according to conscience, not according to party dictates." One of those conscience votes - on the GST - is the genesis for the party's woes, creating a rift within parliamentary ranks that has widened to Grand Canyon proportions.
The Liberal Party's approach resides somewhere between the two, at least in theory. The party has no pledge to bind members to the party line and "crossing the floor" to vote with Labor was, in the past, relatively common.
A 1983 report by then Liberal party president, John Valder, clarified the Liberals' guidelines for crossing the floor - it has to be an issue of conscience, rather than merely a difference over policy and the party leader and colleagues must be informed beforehand. That report was spurred by the view that the floor-crossing of the Fraser years had become an electoral liability.
Pretty much from that moment, free voting has been on the wane. The media, too, has played its role. The mere suggestion of a government member voting with the Opposition is leapt on as evidence of a crisis.
Not one Government member has crossed the floor since Howard came to power in 1996, reflecting the premium put on party discipline by a man who spent more than a decade in the wilderness while his party was portrayed as a rabble by the highly disciplined Labor government.
Howard described the prospect of someone crossing the floor in 2000 as "the first step in our march out of government". He's prepared to allow a conscience vote when the politics are benign, as is the case with stem cells and euthanasia. But when it comes to issues like mandatory detention of children in the Northern Territory or children in detention centres that dovetail into key facets of the party's political identity, backbenchers are told to shut up.
Many felt his flirtation with a conscience vote on denying single women access to IVF treatment was more to do with exploiting deeply rooted Labor divisions on the topic than a desire for unfettered debate.
Howard's pre-eminence is unquestioned so one would hope that he will permit more conscience voting. A free debate on any Australian involvement in an invasion of Iraq would be an excellent start. As Labor's Tanya Plibersek says, war is a life and death issue just like abortion or euthanasia.
With the two parties so close on issues like the economy, the great debates of the future will lie more frequently in the realm of "social and moral" and "life and death". There can be stark divisions in the community over such issues but they aren't going to be reflected by the major parties. Rather, the differences of opinion will be found within the parties. Those debates should be allowed to flourish in full view of the public, rather than being sorted out behind closed doors in the party room or Cabinet.
The political maxim is that disunity is death, but it sure does bring some much-needed life to Parliament.
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