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Political promises and plebiscites

by Dr Simon Longstaff AO
06 July 2017
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
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A parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage wouldn’t break election promises. And the government has no duty to hold a plebiscite if it’s impossible to do so, argues Simon Longstaff.

 
Christopher Pyne heated up the same-sex marriage debate last week when his personal opinion on passing same-sex marriage legislation “sooner than everyone thinks” became public. The hottest topic concerns whether or not the Coalition is obliged to hold a plebiscite or instead do nothing. At first glance, the argument would seem to be with those who are in the ‘plebiscite or nothing’ camp. After all, the Government did promise to resolve the issue by plebiscite at the last election.
 
Is this just a matter of the Government keeping its word? Or are the ethics of the situation more complex?
 
Politicians should always be sincere in their promise making. Only then can citizens make informed decisions when they cast their vote. Furthermore, politicians should honour their promises – as should we all. So far so good.

There is no ethical obligation to do what is impossible. Given this, the Government’s obligation to hold a plebiscite on the question of same-sex marriage is ‘null and void’.

However, there are limits to our obligation to keep promises. The first of those limitations is that we are not obliged to do what is intrinsically wrong – even if we have promised to do so. Second, we are not obliged to do what is impossible. This second limitation is most notably expressed by the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who argued that ‘ought implies can’. That is, it is wrong for any person to be blamed for failing to do something impossible. For example, I cannot walk through a solid brick wall and you cannot blame me for not doing so.
 
So, how might this apply in the case of Prime Minister Turnbull and his Cabinet colleagues’ response to the challenge of same-sex marriage?
 
The reasoning would be as follows. The Coalition parties led by Malcolm Turnbull promised a plebiscite at the last election so we might resolve the issue of same-sex marriage. Given this, the Prime Minister and the Government has an ethical obligation to honour this promise (along with others made during the election campaign). This requires the Prime Minister and his Government to do all that is possible to achieve that end.

The promised plebiscite was only ever a means towards achieving a particular end –resolution on the question of same-sex marriage. 

However, a plebiscite is only possible with the support of the Commonwealth Parliament – support that parliament has resolutely denied. It is impossible for the Prime Minister and Government to honour their promise to hold a plebiscite.
 
As we’ve seen, there is no ethical obligation to do what is impossible. Given this, the Government’s obligation to hold a plebiscite on the question of same-sex marriage is ‘null and void’.
 
Having established the Government has no residual obligation to do what is impossible, what comes next?

It is important to note the Government did not promise if a plebiscite was blocked it would deny a vote in parliament. It merely promised a plebiscite and said nothing about what might happen if that option became impossible. The promised plebiscite was only ever a means towards achieving a particular end – resolution on the question of same-sex marriage.

If the people cannot have a free vote, the next best option is a free vote for their representatives.

While a particular means to achieving that end has been made impossible, other means are available. The Government is not required to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. Given the Opposition and minor parties have refused to support enabling legislation for a plebiscite, it is open to the Government to adopt the ‘next best’ (or ‘least bad’) option for resolving the question of legalising same-sex marriage. This will almost certainly involve a free vote in the Federal Parliament.
 
The reason why the vote should be free (at least in the Coalition parties) is because that is the basis on which the plebiscite was to be run – a free vote of the people. If the people cannot have a free vote, the next best option is a free vote for their representatives.
 
This approach to the issue of the plebiscite will do nothing to solve the political issues associated with those who oppose same-sex marriage. However, the ethical position is beyond question. The Government could hold a parliamentary vote without it being a breach of their election promise.
 
Of course, none of the above answers the core question of whether or not same-sex marriage ought to be legalised. That is a matter Parliament might now decide. And something the Government could allow in good conscience.
 
Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre.

 

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