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Should conscience votes matter?

Lloyd B SMITH

Tuesday, December 03, 2013    

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THE recent revelation that Opposition and Jamaica Labour Party Leader Andrew Holness had required senators appointed by him to sign an undated letter of resignation has brought into sharp focus the uncomfortable reality that our so-called Westminster parliamentary system does not allow for independence of thought. Indeed, most cynics have maintained, and perhaps with good reason, that Parliament is really a rubber stamp affair.

The bitter irony is that constituents vote for a candidate who is expected to go to Parliament and faithfully represent their interests. However, in real terms, when that member of Parliament enters Gordon House, he or she is expected to toe the party line. Hence, there exists the person known as the Parliamentary Whip on both sides of the House, who is assigned the duty of keeping members in line with respect to their respective party's positions. The current whips are Natalie Neita-Headly, for the ruling People's National Party, and Everald Warmington for the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party.

In this scenario, whenever a Bill is debated, it is expected that members of Parliament will follow the House leaders, namely Phillip Paulwell (PNP) and Derrick Smith (JLP). To fall out of line is a serious sin for which a member of Parliament can be chastised, ostracised and marginalised. Readers will recall that current PNP President and Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller earned the wrath of some of her colleagues on her side of the House for abstaining during a vote to do with the fire service. Not so nice words were uttered in her ears which cannot be repeated here. However, Mrs Simpson Miller, a former minister of labour and social security, must have felt constrained and so opted to let her conscience dictate rather than the party's position.

Recently, a number of PNP backbenchers — I was one of them — either abstained or voted nay with respect to a private member's motion on reparation brought by Opposition MP Mike Henry. Needless to say, we were herded into a room and read the riot act. Of course, there is the view that members of Parliament do not go into Gordon House unaware of the fact that they have to adhere to the principle of collective responsibility, and that the fact that they were elected on a particular party's ticket then it is expected that they will be loyal. In the extreme case, where an MP cannot follow that convention, then the appropriate thing to do is to resign or cross the floor.

In all of this, the potent question is, should conscience votes matter, and should these be allowed in particular cases or be totally shunned?

According to Wikipedia, a conscience or free vote is a type of vote in a legislative body where legislators are allowed to vote according to their own personal conscience, rather than according to an official line set down by their political party. "In many liberal democracies, particularly those that follow the parliamentary system of government, the elected members of the legislature who belong to a political party are usually required by that party to vote in accordance with the party line on significant legislation; on pain of censure or expulsion from the party. Sometimes, a particular party member, known as the whip, is responsible for maintaining this party discipline. However, in the case of a conscience vote, a party declines to dictate an official party line to follow and members may vote as they please. In countries where party discipline is less important and voting against one's party is more common, conscience votes are generally less important."

Finally, it is argued that "conscience votes are usually quite rare (as is the case in Jamaica), and are often about issues which are very contentious, or a matter on which members of any single party differ in their opinions., thus making it difficult for parties to formulate official policies." In this vein, one has seen some disparity of views on the current government side regarding the decriminalisation of ganja usage, reparation (as mentioned earlier), and the proposed anti-gang legislation. Will the dissenting MPs be allowed to vote by virtue of their conscience, or will they be whipped in line to follow the party's stance? Exciting days are ahead, because emerging in Parliament is a new breed of politician who feels that there should be room for dissent, especially if this is in the best interest of the country or their constituents.

It must be noted, too, that the same "follow the leader, leader" mantra applies to members of the Senate, although it had been anticipated that there would some room for independence of thought in that august body. In this vein, one may well ask if requesting signed undated letters of resignation is not immoral and unconstitutional.

It is my hope that this article will spark a meaningful debate on this critical issue; even as people, because of the advances in technology, are becoming more aware and are therefore demanding more of their politicians. For example, the view that there should be room for independent senators is a very valid one which I personally support. The cut and thrust of our parliamentary democracy would become more vibrant and "customer friendly" — the voter being the customer in this case. And if Parliament is not to become moribund and irrelevant, then there must be some amount of accommodation for dissension in order to allow for the process of thesis, antithesis, then synthesis to take place in the best interest of the electorate.

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia: "In the United States, parties exercise comparatively little control over the votes of individual legislators, who are almost always free to vote as they wish. Accordingly, most legislative votes in the United States can be considered free votes, although in rare circumstances a legislator may be disciplined by his or her party for a renegade vote. Such discipline usually occurs only on votes regarding procedural matters on which party unity is expected as a matter of course, rather than substantive matters. For example, Democrat James Traficant was stripped of his seniority and committee assignments in 2001 when he voted for a Republican, Dennis Hastert, to be speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Because free votes are the norm in the United States, the terms 'free vote' and 'conscience vote' are generally unused and unknown there."

Considering that Jamaicans are great admirers of the American way of life, do we dare to dream that one day a republican system — once we are no longer beholden to Missis Queen, her heirs and successors — will emerge that will help to revolutionise the way we carry out the people's business? Food for thought!

Lloyd B Smith is a member of Parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica.

loydbsmith@hotmail.com

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