High time for political system to allow free votes on issues of conscience

Column: It is not surprising that so many voices on both sides of the abortion debate have called for TDs and Senators to be given a free vote

Ireland is now one of the few parliamentary democracies in which members of parliament are not allowed free votes on issues of conscience. It's high time that our political system took up the habit and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill is a good place to start.

A free vote, in the parliamentary sense, means one where members are not obliged to vote with the party whip but are free to vote according to their own moral, political, religious or social beliefs.

The four parliamentary systems most similar to our own are those of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In the Canadian parliament they have been allowing free votes for more than half a century. It began in 1946 when the Liberal government, supported by the opposition, proposed a free vote on a motion on milk subsidies. Since then free votes have been allowed on such issues as the national flag, capital punishment, abortion and the prevention of discrimination against homosexuals.


Conscience votes
In Australia and New Zealand they are more often called "conscience votes" rather than free votes. Among the issues on which conscience votes have been allowed in the New Zealand parliament are homosexuality law reform; prostitution; gambling; abortion; euthanasia; the regulation of pornography; Sunday trading; divorce; adoption; the sale of alcohol; electoral reform; the compulsory wearing of seat belts; mandating the fencing of swimming pools; smoking in public places; and compulsory military training. Only last month a marriage equality law was passed in New Zealand after a conscience vote in parliament.

In Australia the recent free votes have been on human cloning, in 2007, and the outlawing of the abortion pill RU486, in 2006. There was much comment inside and outside parliament during the debate on RU486 about how allowing a conscience vote had greatly enhanced the parliament's consideration of the matter. Prime minister John Howard said at the time: "I think parliament rises to its greatest heights when we have debates of this kind. A free vote encourages people to examine their beliefs, to reflect upon their experiences, values and attitudes, and to deal sensitively with a difficult issue."

Free votes are an even more regular feature of parliamentary life in Westminster. While the definition of what is or is not to be subject to a free vote in the British parliamentary system is, in the words of one political scientist, “notoriously fuzzy and evolving”, the category tends to include issues of conscience and other issues where views differ strongly within parliamentary parties.

Last February there was a free vote on the British government’s Bill introducing same-sex marriage. Among the free votes was one on a private members’ Bill to introduce votes for prisoners. In 2008 there was a free vote on a Bill on human fertilisation and embryology. There were free votes on House of Lords reform, in 2007; on a smoking ban, in 2006; on modernisation of the House of Commons, in 2005; and even on a water Bill, in 2003.

It is not surprising, therefore, that so many different voices on both sides of the current abortion debate in Ireland have called for TDs and Senators to be given a free vote on the matter.

Last November the Minister of State for Public Service Reform and the Office of Public Works, Brian Hayes, said there should be a free vote on issues such as abortion. The option of a free vote, he said, is "something a mature parliament should be able to do more often".

Fine Gael backbencher Eoghan Murphy had also called for a free vote. He reiterated his call for a free vote on this legislation in an internal document on Dáil reform that he circulated to party colleagues recently. In it he argued that while the whip system should be in place for important legislation such as the Finance Act and budgetary provisions, it should be relaxed not only on issues of conscience such as the abortion legislation but also for amendments at committee stage of legislation. He called for a more assertive stance by Government backbenchers generally, suggesting, for example, that they should be allowed ask questions in the Dáil during Leaders' Questions.

'The right thing to do'
Two weeks ago the Fianna Fáil Senator Averil Power also called for a free vote on the abortion issue. A free vote was "the right thing to do", she said. "People should be allowed to vote without the censure of the whip on issues of this nature."

Support for a free vote on the legislation has also come from across the religious divides. Late last year the Catholic Bishop of Dromore, Dr John McAreavey, called for TDs and Senators to have a free vote on any abortion legislation, arguing that issues such as abortion should not come down to “purely party politics”.

In a recent editorial the Church of Ireland Gazette also called for a free vote arguing "abortion is a subject that involves deeply conscientious and religious feelings which manifestly qualify it for a free vote among legislators".

In response to suggestions that the party whip should not be imposed in the vote on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, Enda Kenny told his parliamentary party that no free vote would be allowed. He apparently has suggested that to do so would expose TDs and Senators to unacceptable levels of lobbying on the issue. It is not clear why he feels Irish parliamentarians are more timid than their counterparts in Australia, Britain,Canada and New Zealand.

In the words of political historian Peter Richards, “when the whips are off, parliament has a new vitality”. Our parliament could do with an injection of vitality.

Twitter: @noelwhelan