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Why consult the electorate on gay marriage?

By Scott MacInnes - posted Friday, 17 December 2010

With our parliamentarians voting in support of a motion to consult their electorates on gay marriage, it is worth asking why they should consult on this issue, what it means and how it should influence their vote.

That there is some confusion about this becomes apparent if you look at the way Tony Windsor has approached two different issues since his re-election.

It is clear that in deciding which party he would support to form minority government, he took the view that it was his individual judgment that he was required to exercise, not the majority views of his electorate or public opinion at large. This is in accordance with the duty of an elected representative as classically formulated by Edmund Burke.


By contrast, if you look at the way he approached the issue of our continuing involvement in the war in Afghanistan, he seemed reluctant to commit to a position himself. He referred in his speech to the representations he had received at his electorate office (mostly opposed) and urged others to contact him to express their views. Whether he would defer to a clear majority opinion from his electorate on this issue if it was against his better judgment is unclear.

The motion passed in Parliament urging members to consult their electorates on gay marriage seems to be in line with the notion that parliamentarians should represent the views of those who elected them. This is reinforced by proponents of change pointing to opinion polls now showing majority support for gay marriage. The implication is that all parliamentarians need to do is canvass and then follow the most recent majority consensus on the issue, because that is how democracy works.

But is this really all that is involved in the obligation to "consult" and is this how we want our democracy to work? Surely we want our parliamentary decision-making to be able to stand up to critical scrutiny, to be rational, to be moral, to be supported by evidence and to be in accordance with some principles that can be defended.

If the majority public opinion once more shifted against gay marriage, would its proponents still be so enthusiastic about such polls or would they argue, as they have in the past, that the majority opinion was wrong for various reasons?

And if our elected representatives considered the majority public opinion to be morally indefensible, should we expect them to vote contrary to their own better judgment and conscience?

What if the majority opinion is found, on closer examination, to be irrational, or logically flawed, or morally inconsistent when judged by the values we otherwise profess to live by, or based on inadequate evidence, on prejudice, on no more than knee-jerk reaction, an emotional response or an unthinking deference to the views of others?


Surely we would want our elected representatives to do better than merely parrot a fickle and all too easily manipulated public opinion.

When there is public controversy about a proposed course of action or inaction involving some moral concern, it is the job of our representatives to discern what moral principles are relevant and how they should be applied in each particular case.

It is their duty to act always to protect and advance not only our best interests but also the values we profess to live by. We accept that these act as guides to reform (as in the gay marriage issue) and also as constraints on our freedom to protect our interests (as in the debate on the war in Afghanistan.)

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About the Author

Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

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