Concetta Fierravanti-Wells: This [marriage equality] is not a conscience matter. It’s not a life or death matter. Conscience votes in our party room are reserved for life or death matters. And in –
Jonathan Green: Not for matters of deep conviction?
Concetta Fierravanti-Wells: Well, the point is it’s not a life or death matter, which is what conscience votes have been about.
[source: Radio National Drive, 2 July 2015]
Although the allowance of a conscience vote is often provided for matters of “life or death”, it is not exclusively reserved for them. There is no historical restriction on what can or cannot be granted a conscience vote. The Liberal Party allowed a conscience vote on the decision of where to build New Parliament House, for example.
In many cases, conscience votes have been used simply for issues regarding discrimination or social equality. In 1983, Liberal leader Andrew Peacock allowed a free vote on whether to “eliminate discrimination on the ground of sex, marital status or pregnancy in the areas of employment, education, accommodation, the provision of goods, facilities and services, the disposal of land, the activities of clubs and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs.“
In 1973, Liberal leader John Gorton allowed a free vote to support the motion that “homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should not be subject to the criminal law.” The motion was passed 64-40. That motion led to this ordinance, decriminalising homosexuality in the ACT, which was then under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government.
In recent years, conscience votes have become by custom more exclusively utilised in “life or death” matters, such as euthanasia, abortion, and the death penalty. Nonetheless, this trend does not preclude other matters being granted the same liberty.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells is incorrect to suggest that, within the Liberal Party, conscience votes are specifically reserved for “life or death matters”. The Senator may be correct that there is an in-principle reservation in “our party room”, but there is no formal reservation, and it is incorrect to suggest that conscience votes “have been about” life or death matters. There is nothing preventing the Liberal Party from allowing a conscience vote on marriage equality.
Tanya Martin Office Manager
Jake Wishart Senior Media Adviser