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Liberal Party Plebiscite – Principles meet Consequentialism

by The Ethics Centre
30 June 2016
The same-sex marriage plebiscite is a hotly-contested issue this election. Today, we look at some of the ethical arguments that seem to underpin it.

Over the last couple of days we’ve profiled policy platforms from both Labor and the Greens, trying to spot some of the ethical arguments justifying their positions. Today our final post in the series looks at the arguments in defence of the Liberal party’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality.

The policy is a legacy of Tony Abbott’s time as Prime Minister but has been supported by Malcolm Turnbull as “thoroughly democratic” and popularly supported.
Speaking on Q&A, he said:

Look the position, the point that people raise with me is - let's cut to the chase rather than beating around the bush. They raised with me the issue of the plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Now that was not my idea. I'm a traditionalist. I'm a small ‘l’ Liberal and also, in parliamentary terms, a conservative. So my preference was to have it dealt with by a conscience vote, a free vote in the Parliament. Fair enough.

Prior to my becoming PM the party room considered the matter, the Coalition party room considered the matter, and concluded there should be a people's vote, a plebiscite. That was adopted as the policy of the Government and that's, we went out and said to the Australian people and under Tony Abbott's Prime Ministership “every single one of you is going to get a say on this”.

Later, in an interview with Leigh Sales on ABC’s 7:30 Report, he explained similarly:

Sales: If MPs are going to have a free vote anyway, then what’s the point of having a plebiscite, why not just have a free vote?

Turnbull: Because we have offered the plebiscite – my predecessor, his government, the Coalition Government led by Mr Abbott offered the Australian people that plebiscite, it was a commitment that we’ve made. There’s very high levels of support for it. It’s a commitment we have to honour.

I understand the arguments against it very well but it is thoroughly democratic and every Australian will get a say in it and I’m very confident that the plebiscite will be carried.

There are a couple of different elements to Turnbull’s defence in this case. Speaking on Q&A, Turnbull distinguished his personal position on the need for a plebiscite from the commitment made by his party under Abbott. In referring to a party commitment he has to honour, Turnbull is invoking ideas consistent with deontology – which sees ethics as a matter of fulfilling your duties and responsibilities.

The father of deontology, Immanuel Kant, made the duty of promise-keeping a special focus in his writing, something the Prime Minister seems to be channelling in his current rationale.

However, when Turnbull appeared on the 7:30 Report we saw a different type of argument used to supplement the principled argument for the policy. The suggestion here was that, at the end of the day, the vote will be carried in Parliament anyway so all’s well that ends well.

It seems that this more consequentialist point is more of a ‘sweetener’ aimed at those who aren’t convinced by the principled stance. For Kant, such a stance would be unnecessary – he believed we should make no consideration of consequences when deciding what to do. Rather, we should act only according to our duties and principles.

What this means

Standing on principle is often seen as a praiseworthy thing to do – assuming the principles are good ones. ‘Honouring our commitments’ would probably be a principle most people would value and Turnbull’s decision to prioritise the principle may be attractive to some voters.

The invocation of consequences might frustrate others though, who may argue that better consequences could be achieved without the plebiscite – money would be saved, vulnerable groups wouldn’t feel targeted by widespread campaigns and the law would be passed more quickly. Given Labor are advocating a free vote in the Parliament, consequential thinkers might examine whether the plebiscite presents the best option.

Turnbull’s willingness to discuss both principles and consequences – which are sometimes seen as diametrically opposed – might be interpreted as showing a pragmatic, contextually sensitive attitude to political situations. Others may see things more cynically.

Either way, unpacking not only the plebiscite itself but the ethical arguments being advanced in support of it might help clarify swing votes around the hot-button issue.

Check out our profiles on other leaders. On Tuesday we featured Labor leader Bill Shorten’s comments on Medicare and yesterday we dissected Greens leader Richard di Natale’s proposed “Buffett tax”.

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