Private votes need public input

Peter Farago
GEELONG’S federal MPs will be asked to bare their conscience about cloning embryonic stem cells for scientific research.
Labor Member for Corio Gavan O’Connor and Stewart McArthur, the Liberal Member for Corangamite, both told the Independent last week they would need to do some reading before making up their minds on a private member’s bill which passed the Senate last week.
It’s a controversial debate that Prime Minister John Howard allowed by giving Coalition MPs a conscience vote.
The private member’s bill was proposed by former health minister Senator Kay Patterson.
The Government’s rejection of a report advising a ban on using embryonic stem cells for medical researched prompted the bill.
The conscience vote means Liberal, National and Labor politicians won’t be required to vote along party lines. Their personal beliefs and opinions can instead be their guides.
But should that mean that our nation’s leaders are allowed to follow their own beliefs without taking counsel from constituents?
Are our MPs elected to represent their beliefs in parliament or their constituents’ beliefs?
Both Geelong MPs would not reveal how they would vote when they spoke to the Independent last week.
However, they have previously revealed stances on controversial laws, like the decision to take control of abortion drug RU486 from Health Minister and one-time trainee priest Tony Abbott.
On that occasion, Mr O’Connor opposed the bill, while Mr McArthur was in favour.
While their stances on previous legislative changes give an insight into their thoughts, it doesn’t show the Geelong public how their representatives will vote this time on an important issue for many people.
Should Messrs O’Connor and McArthur give their constituents that information several weeks prior to being recalled to parliament to pass judgment on this legislation?
Undoubtedly, both MPs would be fielding unsolicited advice from lobbyists and the public about the rights and wrongs of this private members’ bill.
But is that the same as asking for opinions of Corangamite and Corio residents?
Both MPs are holding their cards close to their chests.
And that’s pretty much been the status quo on this type of issue for both MPs’ reigns in parliament.
Neither has offered their philosophical beliefs on abortion or the use of human embryos for medical research for public consumption prior to an election.
Does that mean they’ve got a mandate to act on these types of laws without consulting the public?
Many might say it doesn’t matter, that they are parliamentarians and their job is to vote.
Australians are naturally suspicious of politicians but they are also hugely apathetic when it comes to government issues.
But laws like these are more than just politicians voting for a pay rise, they are dealing with what many people believe is human life.
Arming voters with information ahead of a parliamentary debate is a means for both Geelong MPs to enhance local interest in federal democracy.
After all, if people know what their MPs are thinking, maybe more would come forward and tell their federal representatives what they think, too, giving their politicians more points of view to consider.