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Tony Windsor on being independent

By Max Atkinson - posted Wednesday, 19 June 2013

It is trite that anyone elected to parliament knows their duty is to work for the community - it is not a licence to further their own interests, those of friends, or of a political party they join. The duty is not, however, defined - the constitution is silent on the matter and so is the oath of office. They must, therefore, do this for themselves - they must develop a sense of their duty in order to justify the decisions they make to themselves, to those who elect them, and to the nation at large.

On September 7th last year Tony Windsor, Independent member for New England and a popular and respected politician, explained to Bernard Keane, Crikey political commentator, why he would vote against same-sex marriage:

On a number of bases, really. The electorate from whence I came, I've done some pretty heavy polling in terms of what their view is, and it's fairly strongly against gay marriage and I have a view, for what it's worth, that marriage is between a man and a woman. There has been some criticism in the electorate of that particular view. But if, in fact, it's what we're voting on, that's the way in which I'll vote.


He would vote against reform then, because he himself thought it was wrong and polls showed his electorate shared this view. Despite this, on April 29 this year the Sydney Morning Herald reported he was proposing a referendum, at a time when national polls showed 60 to 70 % of the public supported same-sex marriage. On the same morning Fran Kelly, on Radio National Breakfast, asked him 'Why … what's the value in that? Isn't it the job of the politicians to decide an issue like this?

Tony Windsor:

Well, it is. But … politicians get captive to various interest groups, whether that be part of the electorate or their cultural or religious backgrounds. … when I vote on these so-called conscience issues, I try to go to the conscience of the electorate, and when I voted on these issues in the past, I voted against same sex marriage, because I believed that's probably what the electorate of New England would want me to do, but a lot of other parliamentarians vote on what their own conscience is. Well, I think the only way to resolve that is for everybody's conscience to have a go rather than, in my case, representing what I believe the electorate would want me to do.

SMH political reporter Heath Aston reported on the same day that Windsor's personal view was also changing; he had been 'leaning toward reform' after witnessing a civil ceremony which was 'possibly the most sincere and meaningful occasion' he had seen; so much so that, if there was now a Parliamentary vote, 'I'd have to have a really hard think about it. But that ceremony had an impact on me. I'd probably vote for it.' A rare example, it seems, of an honest and conscientious politician trying to clarify a sense of his duty and square it with an evolving sense of respect for the dignity and humanity of gays.

But there is a chronic and unresolved ambivalence because he has just explained why he will not act on a personal view; instead he will act on 'everybody's conscience' which, if you think about it, means acting with no moral compass at all, simply trying to ascertain and follow public opinion. Accordingly, if he had been a member in 1973 when former Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton put a private member's bill to support reform of homosexual laws, he would vote against it in line with public opinion, even though party leaders had allowed a free vote, and despite evidence this opinion was changing.

This is puzzling but gets worse. When Fran Kelly asked whether, if Abbott won the election and permitted a conscience vote, he would still vote against same-sex marriage, he said he 'probably' would, because


… the electorate isn't in favour, and I've actually polled the electorate and, that's, I see my role as not being my conscience, you know, if it was left up to me, in the referendum, my conscience, I'd vote how I think …, that's the way our system works. The people are there to try and gauge the views of their electorate.

This makes no sense at all; he has just explained that a referendum would allow all views, not just those of his constituents - to count. But public polling - which he himself uses to find out what electors think - is the next best evidence of 'everybody's conscience' - hence the next best interpretation of his guiding principle. So why give up the principle (which argues for reform) and regress to a conservative New England view?

Outside 'conscience issues', Windsor's philosophy is classical Edmund Burke - he will act on behalf of constituents in the interests of the nation. He will rely on his judgment and conscience because his duty is to serve their interests not simply do their bidding. He will listen to their opinions but not defer to their wishes; he will act in this way because he is their representative not their delegate.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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