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The conscience vote in gay marriage

By Yuri Koszarycz - posted Friday, 16 December 2011

It's rather weird, isn't it? We have elections where we try to choose the best candidate; usually these are professionals who have excellent people skills, good political nous, are personable and have some flair in the community from which they are elected, to deal with issues independently, with resolution and clarity.

Usually they belong to a "Party" - which then constrains them to vote en bloc despite personal reservations. In fact, to do otherwise could mean expulsion from the Party and a loss of their electoral seat.

Occasionally, Party members are given a "conscience vote" which allows each member to "follow their conscience" and vote without the usual "Party constraints."

An example of this is in the decision of the latest Labor Caucus to allow a conscience vote on the issue of "gay marriage." Fair enough - as there are those within the Party that are openly gay, as well as those within the Party that are sympathetic to this view. Fair enough - as there are also those in the Labor ranks whom, for personal or religious reasons, cannot in conscience support such a policy change.

What does astound me is that Tony Abbot has chosen not to allow such a conscience vote to members of his own Liberal Party. He, of course, is aware that there are those within the Party he leads, who are either in homosexual relationships or who have a close affinity with many in the wider community who are.


So why am I astounded at this political decision to enforce 'Liberal values,' not to break rank and not to allow each politician in the Liberal Party a conscience vote?

My astonishment comes from the fact that Tony Abbot is a practicing Catholic! He has the theological ear of even Cardinal Pell himself. Certainly, based on his own personal and religious persuasions it does not come as a surprise that Abbot would elect to oppose any amendment to the Marriage Act. His opposition is understandable and correct, given his religious background and experience.

However, as a Catholic (who once trained to be a priest) he should be equally aware of the teaching of the Catholic Church's magisterium that there is no higher moral obligation than "to follow and live according to one's informed conscience."

The issue of marriage equality falls as much into the moral as the social and political domain, and in this regard, Abbot should be faithful to the precepts and teachings of his church. He should allow members of his Party to vote with their own informed conscience.

The problem may stem from theCatch-22 teaching within the Catholic Church that states that, following one's informed conscience should align any decisions made, with the actual teachings of the church. Forming an alternative view, for the Church, only demonstrates a poorly informed conscience.

In this matter however, Abbot must realise that he is aspiring to be a political leader in a nation where there exists a plurality of moral views on something as contentious as gay marriage. Manifestly, that philosophical and moral plurality is present within his own party - not only within the elected members, but also within the wider community that broadly supports his political views.

The decision to not allow a conscience vote on this issue polarises the broader community to either support "the Party that supports gay marriage," or "the Party that opposes amendments to the Marriage Act."

The choice of words here is quite conscious - as they drive a wedge between the moral convictions found within a larger and broader community.

I am sure that pollsters on both sides of politics are determining how this one issue will affect the potential voter. Will the "over 40's" vote differently from the younger demographic? How will this issue affect the ethnic and migrant vote?

Perhaps, by the decision not to allow a conscience vote for those within his Party on this issue, Abbot is again creating an fracture that can divide the voters, possibly in his favour, without the hard work of presenting and defending actual alternative policies. Or is that too cynical a view?

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About the Author

Yuri Koszarycz is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology, McAuley Campus, Australian Catholic University. He has degrees in philosophy, theology and education and lectures in bioethics, ethics and church history.

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