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18 March 2015
by Max Atkinson

Freedom of conscience and the Liberal Party

In recent times Liberal Party supporters were shocked to see how many of their elected members wanted to replace the Prime Minister, and to learn that Abbott was himself taken by surprise. It spurred a move, by NSW Liberal politicians John Alexander and Angus Taylor, to change the rules - as Labor did under former PM Rudd - to raise the voting bar for a leadership spill to 60 or 70 per cent.

The question is whether this makes sense if the real problem was the PM'S policies, including budget policies he supported. For there is no reason to assume that Liberal voters and those they elected - just because they traditionally favour values of freedom and personal responsibility and look to conservative budgets - would not share many of the concerns raised about equity.

It now seems clear back benchers did, and were not impressed by the Treasurer's failure to address complaints of unfairness over who would bear the costs of a balanced budget. ACOSS had argued a range of alternatives, the Australian accountants now support a GST rise, and we may well see calls to revive a Commonwealth estate duties tax, and have a serious debate on thresholds for pensioner entitlements, limits on superannuation perks and so on.

The Government, instead, put the cart before the horse; it promised no new taxes and put off a tax restructure debate until the second term. This meant cuts to health, education and welfare regardless of the consequences. It might have avoided this, and the leadership crisis, if the party had a practice of informed discussion and ongoing debate on what it stood for, and especially its understanding of fairness as a political principle.

An earlier paper attributed much of the problem to a rigid doctrine of party unity, with a failure to distinguish the unity needed to achieve policy goals from the more judicial approach required on issues of moral and political principle, where members must act on an informed and conscientious judgment. It is worth pausing to consider the case for freedom of opinion, especially since prominent Liberals like Amanda Vanstone, the presenter of ABC Radio's Counterpoint program, see freedom of conscience as a unique virtue of her party.

By contrast, deputy leader Julie Bishop believes the Westminster principle of joint cabinet responsibility means members of Cabinet must support the Prime Minister on all matters, not vice versa, regardless of their collective judgment and sense of conscience. This was the basis for her attack on former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr on 13th December, 2012, after he supported a successful move by the Labor caucus to oppose PM Julia Gillards' rejection of a UN move to upgrade the status of Palestine.

The same deference helps clarify an otherwise puzzling reference in the PM'S political manifesto, 'Battlelines'. In a December, 2009 postscript to the second edition, he explains the party room moves leading to the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull. He notes that Turnbull's initial success in defending an amended Emissions Trading Scheme rested on his ability to count all shadow ministers in favour; he explains 'It certainly hadn't been carried … in the party room, where shadow cabinet members are not allowed to speak.'

Many readers will be familiar with the doctrine of joint cabinet responsibility, which helps define the Westminster system, and requires the government to speak with one voice once cabinet has reached a decision; it means the Prime Minister and the relevant minister defend government policy against subsequent concerns raised in the party room.

The same readers, however, might be surprised to learn that party rules exclude shadow ministers from discussions on such major issues of policy as the ETS. Whereas the doctrine of joint responsibility has long proved its merits, the extension of this to parties in opposition makes no sense at all. It rules out input from experienced and talented members once the leader has spoken, however hasty or ill-considered his views. This constraint on freedom of speech means senior members, in order to put their concerns to the party, must resign from the shadow cabinet or call for a leadership spill.

One can argue that this makes sense on pragmatic grounds and to avoid any appearance of dissent (which the media will certainly exploit) - that it does not reflect the party's underlying commitment to individual freedom and freedom of speech and opinion.

Which brings us to the question of same-sex marriage and the Prime Minister's refusal, as leader, to permit a 'conscience' vote. Behind that refusal, it should be noted, is the acceptance by party members that leaders ought to have this power to say when they are free to use their own judgment and conscience.

It is reasonable to ask, given the precarious state of the present leadership, and the broader implications for the party, how much this practice of moral self-subordination has to do with the crisis of confidence behind the backbenchers' revolt, and whether it respects those members of the public who elected them, not just to serve their interests, but to defend values of freedom of speech and conscience - even if they might sometimes disagree with the interpretation.