Conscience Votes in Australia: Deliberation and Representation



Publication Details

Ross, K., Dodds, S. & Ankeny, R. A. (2016). Conscience Votes in Australia: Deliberation and Representation. In S. Dodds & R. A. Ankeny (Eds.), Big Picture Bioethics: Developing Democratic Policy in Contested Domains (pp. 37-58). Switzerland: Springer.


In Australia, federal parliamentarians are expected to vote according to pre-existing party policy or under instructions from party elites. In rare cases, a party may endorse a 'conscience vote' on a particular bill, freeing members from the obligation to maintain party discipline and allowing them to vote according to their individual 'conscience'. In recent years, conscience votes have been most often granted in Australia in response to highly-contentious ethical policy questions, a shift which began in 1973 with the Medical Practice Clarifi cation Bill 1973 to decriminalise abortion in the Australian Capital Territory. 1 Between 1973 and 2006, the major political parties allowed their members a conscience vote 17 times, the majority of which can be classifi ed as being about bioethical issues (e.g. euthanasia, access to abortion and embryo research). To date, there has been little critical research that evaluates the democratic effects of conscience votes. This paper considers this issue alongside of the increase in numbers of women MPs during this period. We assess the concordance between public opinion and the outcomes of federal Parliamentary conscience votes in the past three decades, showing that there has been more consonance between them in recent years, and that this is likely to be due to the impact of the array of modes of women's participation on matters subject to conscience votes. This is demonstrated through the analysis of six key case studies of ethicallycontentious conscience votes from the period under discussion in light of three democratic ideals: accountability, representation and deliberation. To the extent that there is a recent resurgence of interest in democratic ideals within political philosophy, it is worth exploring their manifestations in concrete political practice. (Among the recent works that discuss democratic ideals of accountability, representation and deliberation are: Dryzek 2000 ; Fishkin 1995 ; Goodin 2003 ; Gutmann and Thompson 1996 ; Mansbridge 2003 ; Sandel 2005 ; Young 2000 ).

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