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Gay marriage, free votes, and matters of conscience

This Magazine Staff

In the lead editorial on Saturday, the Globe and Mail asked, “where does a free vote end and government accountability begin?”
The editorial argued that The Headwaiter should make the vote on the upcoming gay marriage legislation a “free vote” for Liberal backbenchers, but that all members of Cabinet should vote with the government and support the bill. This reverses the paper’s previous arguments, in which it held that gay marriage was a matter of conscience, and therefore ministers should be free to “vote their conscience”.
The Globe concluded that a free vote for ministers would diminish accountability, because under the parliamentary system, the government “must stand together and be accountable for these decisions. Otherwise, we the voters would not be able to punish them or reward them at the next election.”
I agree entirely. I didn’t see the previous “matter of conscience” editorial, but from the sounds of it, whoever wrote that one was out to lunch. But I’m still left with a few concerns.
1. I don’t understand how something like gay marriage could ever be considered a “matter of conscience”. If that’s a matter of conscience, what isn’t? Surely, the decision whether to raise taxes to fund a national daycare programme is also a “matter of conscience”, as is a decision about whether to wage war, questions of what is a crime and types of punishment, and so on. The implied threat of violence underpins every act of government, since ultimately it is the monopoly over coercion that gives force and legitimacy to Parliament’s decisions.
One of the worst contributions of Reform/Alliance thinking to Canadian political discourse is the notion that some state actions are matters of morality, and should therefore be left to each MP’s “conscience”. The fact is, when legislating, MPs should be concerned not with morality — issues of “conscience” — but with justice — i.e. questions of the limits of government, rights, fairness, and the rule of law. The whole point of liberalism is that the business of the state is not to implement morality, but to regulate behaviour.
As a result, I can’t think of a single substantive topic of legislation that could legitimately be seen as a matter of conscience. The only such topics would be matters that do not invoke the powers of the state to tax and spend, coerce, or punish. That would apply to largely symbolic acts, such as Parliament’s decision a few years ago to award honourary citizenship to Nelson Mandela.
2. The Globe is right that Cabinet solidarity is central to the mechanism of responsible government. But here’s the problem: At election time, Canadians don’t vote for or against “the government”, so we can’t punish or reward “them”. We vote for a single member, who may or may not have been a minister in the government.

That is to say, voters don’t — indeed can’t — do what the Globe suggests we do. We elect a parliament; they are the ones who reward or punish the government, through the mechanisms of responsible government.
This is important, because what it means is that, at election time, the best voters can do is reward of punish EITHER an individual member (for how that member voted on a given issue, say) OR they can punish or reward the governing party as a whole. Which means that, if the Globe’s argument for why Cabinet must vote together is cogent, then it must also apply to the entire Liberal caucus. Ultimately, party discipline is simply the logical extension of cabinet discipline in a Parliament dominated by parties. And if the Globe thinks voters should reward or punish individual members, then they should go back to their previous stance on free votes for Cabinet.
3. All of this points to a fundamental misunderstanding of free votes and their place in our system. Many people like to point to the British system, which is supposedly superior because of its use of the “three-line whip.” Basically, it means that unlike Canada, where almost every vote is whipped along party lines, there are many votes in Britain in which the Cabinet votes collectively, but backbenchers vote how they want. One of The Headwaiter’s pre-election promises was to reduce the democratic deficit by introducing the three-line whip to Canada.
Here’s the problem: British MPs are not more powerful because the government gives them more free votes. British MPs get more free votes because they are more powerful. That is, the three line whip is a concession forced upon the government by the MPs. In Britain, there are many MPs who are in extremely safe seats, and who have been in Parliament for decades. They have an entrenched power base, and do not rely on government patronage and favour for their political lives. The exact opposite is the case in Canada. Canada has one of the most amateur parliaments in the world, with MPs staying an average of only 7 years. Turnover is also far more volatile in Canada than in other parliamentary systems.
Which means that Canadian MPs have far less consolidated power, and are more easily bossed around by the party leadership. That is why, despite his promise, the Headwaiter hasn’t done much about granting more free votes to the backbench. Why should he? They aren’t in any position to demand it.

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