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Plebiscites and conscience votes: Playing the democracy card

By John Warhurst - posted Friday, 24 June 2011

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s ill-fated bill to put the government’s carbon tax to a plebiscite within 90 days came to nothing. No matter how clever a move it might have seemed, he jumped ahead of himself in the same way that Greg Combet did when he announced an advertising budget for a tax that had not yet been announced. The plebiscite move turned out to be too clever by half.

By playing this card Abbott gave up several others in his hand. He admitted that the tax would receive parliamentary approval, thus reducing any pressure on the cross-bench to oppose the legislation. More importantly he shifted ground from his earlier position that the tax would only be legitimate if Julia Gillard first called an election with the tax as an issue. Thus he gave away too much in trying to manipulate the last week of parliament before the new Senate takes office.

While Abbott defended it as an essential democratic initiative par excellence the government called it just an attention-seeking stunt. That response was not in itself a knockout blow in politics, which is full of stunts. The point was not whether it was a stunt but whether it was an effective manoeuvre. It proved not to be.


A plebiscite is a non-binding indicative vote, which gives an indication of popular opinion on a political issue. Plebiscites are rare in Australian federal politics. The most famous have been the two unsuccessful plebiscites on conscription for military service during World War One and in 1977 there was a plebiscite to advise the Fraser government on a new national anthem to replace God Save the Queen. There have been state level plebiscites on divisive matters like daylight saving as well as local plebiscites. Moreover Senator Bob Brown has signaled his intention to move a bill for a plebiscite on the republic question, which is also Labor Party policy.

A plebiscite is not a binding referendum, like a constitutional referendum under Section 128 of the Constitution, but it can be presented to the community in such a way if the government promises not to proceed without popular endorsement. Abbott, from Opposition, presented his suggested plebiscite in this way: though remarkably he claimed that he himself would not be bound by the result.

The Australian system of government is based upon citizen involvement at election times and government (and, in theory, parliamentary) responsibility for policy in between times. Governments are held accountable for their actions at the next election. An occasional plebiscite can be a useful addition to the system under which certain difficult questions are allowed additional consultation with the community. They can be used sparingly much like conscience votes are used sparingly in the Parliament.

But there is another view. For some people, on both the right and the left, plebiscites are an exercise in direct democracy not just in popular consultation. As such they are part of a growing attraction towards direct democracy which is seen in many current developments: within the organisation of political parties; in the debate about direct election of a republican president; and in experiments with people’s parliaments and deliberative democracy. It is also manifest in the movement for Citizens Initiated Referenda (CIR).

Abbott’s exaggerated rhetoric placed him in this second camp, whether he realised it or not. He has now left himself open to calls for wider use of plebiscites. What, for instance, are the criteria for the use of such democratic instruments? What about plebiscites on gay marriage or euthanasia?

The occasional use of parliamentary conscience votes always leads to calls for their wider use because they also seem per se to be more democratic. Independents’ Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott shrewdly picked up on this point by calling for a conscience vote on the carbon tax; thus playing the democracy card right back at Abbott.


Public support for the carbon tax is as low as 25 per cent. Abbott must have felt that he could play around with this approach without fear of any adverse consequences. He wrongly assumed that this was a strategy without any down side for him. If the government refused to cooperate he could accuse it of cowardice; if they complied he thought he was certain to win; if the government happened to win he planned to disregard the result.

But his strategy had a potential downside, in addition to enhancing his reputation for inconsistency and ad hocery. There is just a chance that following the release of the details of the tax and its passage through parliament the carbon tax will again become popular in the community. Even in failure he may have handed the prime minister a strategy to play with later, though by specifying a plebiscite within 90 days he tried to ensure that the tax had no chance of gaining public acceptance.

The Opposition Leader would not be so keen on a plebiscite if public opinion polls showed a majority in support of a tax. Kevin Rudd baulked at a double dissolution election in 2010 on the so-called greatest moral challenge of our time. Perhaps Gillard, having earlier been ridiculed for her idea of a people’s assembly on climate change, might see some merit in a hard-fought plebiscite if the time was right. She might just win and reestablish her credentials. Abbott could hardly object. If she lost some say she would have an excuse not to proceed, however, she could not do that because to do so would threaten the very existence of her minority government.

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About the Author

John Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science with the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

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